Jordan Wolfson

"Do I think that I’m like Woody Allen?"
Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Clare Ros

Untitled, 2011, adhesive digital print on lobster claws

So what kind of artist are you?

What I feel I'm doing is a sequential line of works. I see it as a path. I want the works to become autonomous, independent. They should exist independently of any exhibition. It might be more similar to how an author works. Or a musician doing records, one after the other.

Or a filmmaker. Like Woody Allen, who does one film a year.
What’s your take on Woody Allen?
I think he’s great. I think that he’s really funny and really, really smart. I love his movies. And I think it’s incredible what he did. It’s amazing to me that he made Sleeper. And it’s amazing to me that he made Annie Hall. There’s a whole transition between Sleeper and Annie Halls when he got Bergman and Sven Nykvist—Bergman’s cinematographer that started working with him later on in the eighties. The look of his films changed dramatically. Do I think that I’m like Woody Allen? No. I don’t.
I wasn’t going to suggest that.
But people often do, especially in Europe.
They compare you to Woody Allen?
Because I have glasses, I’m Jewish-looking, and I’m funny or something. I love Woody Allen probably like anyone else loves Woody Allen. But I don’t really study Woody Allen.
What about film in general?
I don’t really think of myself as a filmmaker. Even at RISD, I was in the sculpture department because I wanted to have the choice to make anything I wanted to. And they asked me to leave at one point. They said, “Why don’t you go to the film and video department?” But I never felt like I was a film and video person. I don’t imagine my work being in film festivals, or in the realm of commercial cinema or advertising. I’ve always thought of myself as a visual artist. My influences aren’t so much film and video.

Untitled False Document film still, 2008

That’s weird because you always struck me as somebody that had a real and deep appreciation of filmmakers. When I was working for you, we were always talking about them. Bergman…
I love Bergman. That’s different though, at least to me. Bergman is hardcore art. Bergman is so different from all other cinema. He’s so removed. He was a commercial filmmaker, but he surpasses the standards for what we consider commercial filmmaking today—or even back then. I don’t have any ambition of being a commercial filmmaker and leaving the art world to make movies. My brain doesn’t turn that way. I don’t think about interesting stories that could be made into movies. That’s the farthest thing from my brain. I think of images in flashes. That’s what I’m inspired by.
You’ve made work about commercial films. I remember hearing about this one piece at RISD, I never actually saw it. You recited every word from the script of Home Alone.
Oh, yeah, I did that in my senior year of RISD. I also did Infinite Melancholy, the Christopher Reeve video.
You did them both at the same time?
I did them both at the same time.
But you only showed Infinite Melancholy.

I kind of never finished the Home Alone thing. There were some technical problems and I had no time. I had to choose one or the other to show.
It sounds closer to Animation, Masks in a way, than the Christopher Reeve piece—certainly in terms of dubbing yourself on the voiceover track.
I watched some of it recently with a friend and it seemed really amateurish. But when I made it, it was a really massive project to me.
If I think about it, Animation, Masks seems really connected to the history of video art: Alex Bag, the performance video, the body on screen, the video image.

Yes, in that case, although I don’t feel like that about other works, for example, Infinite Melancholy. Sometimes you spend your time making something that looks like art. It looks good to you because of other art you’ve seen or know about, and what you know about art history. Eventually though, after time and practice, you get over it and break off on your own: You make your own work. It seems really scary at first because there’s no one to tell you what’s right except for yourself. You can show it to your friends, and they can say, “That’s great,” but it’s not like you can open up some art history book and prove that what you’ve done is great: “Oh, look, so-and-so did it like that, and I do it like that, so therefore it’s a success.” 

Anthology Film Archives Program, 2010

So Infinite Melancholy was a leap of faith?
Did you feel nervous making it and putting it in front of people?
I was totally freaked out. When I first did it I had to render it at the computer lab at school. It took eleven days to render on this one G4 computer. Originally, it was this flat-planed landscape with a blue sky. And then I distorted it—I pulled up at the horizon lines. The result was that when you viewed the piece it pulled you in, almost physically. There was no horizon. There was a visceral feeling to it.
It’s uncanny. Your other videos have these uncanny moments, too.
Yeah, it's strange. The uncanny effect seemed to start happening when I gave up control in the works.
What kinds of people like your work?

I’m always surprised by it because I always feel that the things I want to do no one is going to like. Maybe that’s just an insecurity of mine—I get worried that people aren’t going to get it or that it will be too much. And when I end up doing them because I know I need to do them, because I need to follow through—those are always the best works. I really didn’t think Animation, Masks was going to be as critically successful as it was. I didn’t think Con Leche was going be as successful as it was either, both critically and commercially. And when Animation, Masks was finished I knew that this was how the piece had to be. I didn’t care if anyone was going to like it or not. That was a really important place for me to get to, and also a scary place to be. It’s hasn’t been easy. I had a really positive, strong response from friends on the piece. But the first night I showed it in Dusseldorf, there wasn’t as strong of a response. Or at least I wasn’t so sure. I was really nervous. Later I showed it at Frieze and it was received very well. And after that the show with Alex Zachary and Peter Currie was overwhelmingly well received too. I didn’t expect it to go like that. 

Do the people critical of your work ever confront you directly?
No, not really. I think a lot of the people who would criticize me or my work wouldn’t do it to my face. They tend to be the kind of people who avoid confrontations.

Animation, Masks Installation, Alex Zachary, 2012

So when you finish a piece, is there some kind of self-acceptance that happens?
It’s not so much about acceptance; it’s more that I have this thing that I’ve been working on for a certain amount of time. I reached the final deadline, which could hypothetically be an exhibition. Or I just came to the conclusion that I knew it was finished—it’s as good as it’s going to be and I did my best possible job at it. And then it’s finished. And now it’s in the world. I can still change it here and there, fix it up a bit, that’s my privilege, but that’s the piece- it's done. It’s very assuring and comforting to be finished and able to go on. I’m super critical of myself and the work, so I go crazy and don’t want to see anybody while I’m working. I have to get to a point where I accept the work as an artwork. And then I accept it as finished.
Alright. I feel like I’m getting you exhausted, let me ask you one more question—we haven’t talked about bringing Judaism into art or even into the conversation of art. Frank Stella is a Jewish artist but often isn’t recognized as such. His cultural background is irrelevant, but is also very present. On the other hand you’ve brought your Jewish identity forward in a dramatic way.
Because I made Animation, Masks?
Not just because you made that piece; it was already there. You talked about it with The Crisis, with the fact that you’re in that video talking inside a church…
Oh, the Jewish guy talking inside a church, right.
Judaism is very foreign to the conversation of art.

It’s not interesting to the conversation of art. I thought it was interesting in terms of The Crisis, in terms of a Jewish guy in a church, having a kind of binary function. It’s just two things that cross each other out. I’m not a religious person, but within a church I feel like an outsider. Ironically, I feel the same in a synagogue. Anyway, I’m not really interested in Judaism and bringing Judaism in. I don’t practice Judaism, either. For Animation, Masks I went to a rabbi to talk about Judaism, but I realized it was a mistake for me to have done so. He couldn’t tell me anything except…
Weren’t you trying to live with a Hasidic family?

No, I visited an Orthodox household. Again, I got no answers. I was lost and didn't realize that the answers for the work had nothing to do with actual Judaism. For the most part I was confused about what I was doing. In the end, I realized that the answers were inside myself. There weren’t going to be any specific notes of knowledge that were going to enlighten me as to how to complete the artwork. It was simply a matter of what my own personal directives were, how I saw the world. And that was it. Everything else was wasted time.
You tend to waste time when you work.

Yes, unfortunately.
You make a lot of stuff that you don’t use.
Like the bicycle piece. Yes.
The bicycle piece. I don’t know what the fuck you’re ever going to do with that. I hope you do something with it.
A lot of extra stuff gets cut out like crazy. I waste a lot of money and time, but I think it’s all in the hope that I get to some unique place in the end.
And you do.
Thanks, I hope to.

Still from Rasberry Poser, 2012

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Art