‘Most beauty doesn’t have a lot of depth, whereas grotesque and ugly things really do.’

By Dean Kissick
Photographs and layout by Juergen Teller
Creative partner Dovile Drizyte

Jordan Wolfson. - © System Magazine

In Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote in 1819 that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ The artist Jordan Wolfson thinks much the same. Ffrench credits Wolfson as one of the few people around whom she can be totally and unapologetically herself – and because he, like her, pushes the boundaries of notions of beauty, ugliness, honesty and artifice. Wolfson creates animatronic figurative sculptures that perform, interacting with their audience in intimate, sometimes discomforting ways, trying to provoke a feeling. Before flying down to Canberra, to the National Museum of Australia for the world premiere of his latest work, Body Sculpture, he spoke with Isamaya about beautiful ideas and beautiful people.

Jordan Wolfson: I realised that what I think is beautiful, other people might not, because what I find beautiful are things that exploit truth and that includes the dark and the light. A lot of people just want to show the light, especially right now. When I think of movies, if you ask me, ‘What’s a beautiful movie?’ I might say Viridiana by Luis Buñuel, about a woman who leaves a convent, and then she goes and lives with her uncle. She invites all of these homeless people to live in the house and they are at one point trying to kill her; to me, that’s beautiful. I’m not saying it’s the truth that homeless people want to kill people, but I’m talking about the reality of showing the truth of human nature.

Isamaya Ffrench: One of the most common questions I’m asked is, ‘How do you define beauty?’ It’s a really annoying question. Perhaps, right now, you’re helping me define it. I’ve always said that it’s something that moves me. And I’m moved by honesty and truth, I suppose. I’ve seen an interview you’ve given about how you bring together contrasting ideas, and that tension creates the intrigue. I was thinking about how people often talk about my work as being anti-beauty, but I feel like I work in a similar sort of process to you. Half the work for me is done because the context is always fucking ‘beauty’, so anything that I do contrasts very well with that, whether it’s in a fashion magazine, or it’s on a runway show, or it’s a face. It’s easy to make things striking and extreme, because most beauty doesn’t have a great deal of depth, whereas the grotesque and ugly and other things really do. You can go a lot further.

Jordan: Totally. You know, your industry is about concealment, and then in my industry it’s about constantly taking off the mask. When I was a kid, I was driving along with my uncle over one of the bridges between Manhattan and Queens, to get onto I-95 and out of New York. My uncle points and he goes, ‘It looks very beautiful there.’ I looked, and it was a smokestack, the sky was brown, it was grey, and it’s polluting, it’s doing bad things. And he said to me, ‘Look at all of those colours, that’s still visually beautiful.’ I never forgot that. I think that people have a hard time parsing those things away from each other. They feel like if something is potentially morally subtractive, then it’s not beautiful. But that’s not true. You asked me what’s beautiful. I saw a mouse that had been completely flattened on the gravel, and its organs had basically exploded and flattened out of its body. It was totally flat, profoundly flat. Seeing the contrast of the organs, the flattened fur and the silhouette of the mouse’s flattened corpse over this graded, dark asphalt surface, those contrasts of textures were beautiful to me. I took a picture. I go, ‘That’s very beautiful.’ Is it morally beautiful? I don’t know. It’s just something that happened.

Isamaya: I can generally get behind most people’s aesthetics. That’s what I have to do for my job, getting into somebody else’s head and then using my vision to help articulate their brains creatively. That’s kind of what I do for mega brands.

Jordan: What’s beautiful to me is more like a feeling. Everyone knows that you can meet someone who’s amazingly beautiful, but if they’re not able to express their consciousness in a very free way, if they’re not comfortable with who they are, they’re ultimately not beautiful. The most physically beautiful person in the world could be the most dull; they could be a person who takes too much energy, and you need to be away from them. It’s when you meet someone who is comfortable in their own charisma, in their own narcissism – and I mean that in a positive way, we all have narcissism, we all have all of these things – and if you can accept it, if you can laugh at it, you can be beautiful.

Isamaya: The last time I saw you, we were talking about how both of our respective industries like to advise or encourage us not to make work that carries particular themes that might be controversial or problematic. I feel like that attacks me because I’m unable to express my truth or even explore it. How do you feel about that?

Jordan: My industry is very lopsided, but I’m a professional and in order for me to do my job I’ll also accept that at times what I’m doing is unpopular. I’ve chosen my profession because I can’t work for anybody. The minute I start working for anyone, I become completely pathologically disinterested. In short, life is banal and stupid. And it’s a waste of time to do things that you don’t like, especially for other people. If you want to live a beautiful life, in my opinion, you need to find a way to accept that. It’s just so silly that we’re in this human world. We’re constantly playing roles. As an artist, I’m creating these artworks, right, and the artworks are kind of performers. And there’s someone who’s the audience, but I’m also the audience. There’s an audience and a performer and there’s an innate desire for us to create and sell things to each other. There’s an innate desire for us to basically witness and receive things. So this performer-audience dynamic, or merchant-customer dynamic, is somehow innately in us, and there’s so much absurdity around it. It’s just so silly, all the bullshit that we get caught up in. If there are aliens, which I believe there are, they’re probably watching us and it’s like a reality show, it’s the best show you’ve ever seen, because we’re just the biggest idiots ever. We are just very stupid, brutal, horrible, dumb animals.