The Gut-Wrenching VR Work That’s Got the Art World Talking about Violence

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By Isaac Kaplan

Jordan Wolfson doesn’t like violence, he told me. The statement may surprise anyone who has experienced the artist’s virtual reality piece at the Whitney Biennial, in which he forces viewers to witness a brutal beating on a city street. In a scene that unfolds over 90 seconds, an anonymous man (played by the artist) takes a baseball bat and then his shoe to the head of a kneeling victim. A Hebrew prayer plays over the scene until what was once a face is reduced to pulp. And then the video cuts to black.

The work provides no context, no story, and no reason. There is only a pure distillation of violence delivered through one of the most powerful uses of virtual reality to ever grace a museum’s halls. Without a narrative to hold onto, what you’re left with after witnessing the work is an overwhelming feeling of brutality, the sound of a bat striking against a skull, and incredibly graphic imagery seared into memory.