On ViewDavid Zwirner
May 2 – June 30, 2018
We hear Riverboat song (2017-2018) before we see it. The first view of Jordan Wolfson’s sixteen-channel video installation is of its back, a hulking mass of wires, monitors and media players arranged in an upright grid on purple carpet that covers the gallery floor. Suspense is built into the approach: one has to round the corner of this monolith to access the main event. The other visitors can be seen before the video itself, an inversion of movie theaters where spectators silhouette the image. They react to Riverboat song with nervous laughter and grimaces, mirroring the video’s absurd and explicit content.
A ragtag troupe of animated characters—three rats, a young boy, an alligator, and two horses—engage with the viewer in a series of vignettes. The alligator chants “death” to a crunchy drum beat as his tail wiggles in a gloryhole cut from the obituary section of a newspaper. The rats, chain smoking and clad in greasy shirts, are integrated into found footage of an airplane’s interior. One lounges in a vacant seat; another strolls down the aisle past oblivious passengers, a specter of indecency. The boy performs a provocative dance to the rapper Iggy Azalea’s song Work (2014) until large breasts and butt cheeks pop out of his clothing. He’s a mischievous, prepubescent redhead wearing a green vest, red shirt, and frayed capris—the animated version of the figure hung from chains and battered in Wolfson’s 2016 work Colored sculpture. In another scene, he twirls and dances as he gobbles up cadmium chartreuse fountains of urine that stream endlessly from his exposed penis—rabid delight in his bodily functions breaks bodily limitations. All the while he nods vigorously at the viewer and makes uninhibited eye contact as if daring us to keep looking. Destructively curious and crudely sexual, yet self-aware enough to know better, he’s a cartoon distillation of young male energy.
A monologue voiced by Wolfson is delivered through the animated characters, who appear sequentially and address the viewer as a future lover. The boy begins by enumerating a string of wants: “I want to drink your blood,” “I want to dance naked for you to pop music,” etc. His desires alternate between disturbing and strangely sweet, but they’re expressed in an unwavering, matter-of-fact tone that indicates psychopathic detachment. The other characters deploy the same attitude: while the alligator takes a bubble bath, his phallic tail gesticulates as he muses, “I’d also like you to do things for me, like cook, or advise me on cleaning. Maybe even do it for me.” Gestures that are standard in relationships are drained of romance by the alligator’s impassivity; his words approach the language of abuse. Wolfson toys with context and tone in this way throughout the video, making the familiar objectionable and the objectionable banal.
The attitude of the characters takes on another form in a sequence of YouTube screen captures soundtracked by Otis Redding’s 1966 hit Try a Little Tenderness. Videos of white-on-black violence, a sexy woman dancing, artificially intelligent robots, and a tutorial on “The Best Way to Cut an Apple” are tactlessly played back-to-back with the same placid detachment exhibited by Wolfson’s characters. Otis Redding provides an ironic counterpoint as he sings, “Try a little tenderness; that's all you gotta do.” By recreating the adjacency of disparate genres of internet content, Wolfson challenges the viewer to distinguish between different kinds of visual stimulation. The disgust of witnessing violence and the satisfaction of seeing an apple about to be sliced are ostensibly two incomparable experiences, yet their proximity forms a hybrid experience—one in which signifiers are crosswired to confuse discomfort with pleasure, the exceptional with the mundane. Riverboat song is an exceedingly rich portrait of the anarchic circulation of media in the digital age.