Jordan Wolfson's Real Violence courted controversy when it was shown at Tasmania's Dark Mofo in 2019.CREDIT:DARK MOFO/REMI CHAUVIN
The National Gallery of Australia's most expensive and contentious art purchase in two decades – Jordan Wolfson's $6.8 million Cube – has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Canberra institution spent almost half its acquisition budget for the year on the controversial American artist's animatronic sculpture, which director Nick Mitzevich said will be a "work of art that becomes a destination".
The highly-anticipated unveiling of Cube was due to take place in early 2021 but has been pushed back to at least June next year, as travel bans have caused production delays and prevented the US artist and his team of technical specialists from visiting Australia to install and test the interactive work.
But art critics haven't suspended their judgment, excoriating the acquisition as a "cultural slap in the face" and a "total waste of money".
The NGA has described the work as a lifelike, large-scale mirrored cube with arms that "crawls, poses, thrashes around and dances to music" in response to the movements of viewers.
Jordan is a great salesman and he is a great provocateur and he is a showman – but he is also an incredibly thoughtful artist.
Evoking Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, which the NGA famously acquired for $1.3 million in 1973 and is now worth as much as $350 million, Mitzevich said Cube embodies the institution's mandate to "buy works that will write the art history books".
Jordan Wolfson's 2016 Colored Sculpture was acquired by the Tate Modern. CREDIT:DAN BRADICA/DAVID ZWIRMER GALLERY/SADIE COLES HQ
"I can't see that anyone could say that buying Jordan Wolfson is a risk. He is in the world's leading collections. He is already, for me, defining the period that we are in and I think he is an artist and it is a work that will only become much more emblematic of the time in which we live," Mitzevich said.
Wolfson's Female Figure (2014).CREDIT:INSTAGRAM/ @JORDANMATTHEWWOLFSON
Mitzevich targeted Wolfson, 39, for acquisition and said he was the first to be offered Cube, commissioning it last year after meeting the artist and seeing the plans for the $US5 million (A$6.8 million) work.
Wolfson is most known for his interactive animatronic sculptures that provoke questions about contemporary culture including technology, mass media and the tension between reality and artificiality. Female Figure (2014) consists of a hyper-sexualised robotic woman with platinum blonde hair, thigh-high boots, a short dress and a face mask, who dances in front of a mirror and uses facial recognition software to make eye contact with viewers. Colored Sculpture (2016), which has been acquired by the Tate Modern, sees a cartoonish, child-like figure attached to chains, swung through the air and crashed to the ground.
The NGA will be the first institution in the southern hemisphere to own a Wolfson work, with the Cube its most costly purchase since Lucian Freud's After Cezanne was acquired for $7.4 million in 2001. Mitzevich said it was Wolfson's most ambitious work yet.
"Jordan is a great salesman and he is a great provocateur and he is a showman – but he is also an incredibly thoughtful artist that pushes the boundaries of art," Mitzevich said.
But some are sceptical that provocation will lead to posterity. Pulitzer-Prize winning critic Sebastian Smee, an Australian who now writes on art for The Washington Post, said the motivation behind the acquisition was "so transparent it's embarrassing" with the NGA "banking on the benefits of publicity".
"Jordan Wolfson's work strikes me as exactly the sort of thing Nick Mitzevich would want the National Gallery to buy. And exactly the sort of thing that will look like a total waste of money in a fairly short amount of time," Smee said.
The National Gallery of Australia commissioned Jordan Wolfson's latest work, Cube, for $6.8 million.CREDIT:KRISTA KENNELL/PATRICK MCMULLAN VIA GETTY IMAGES
The Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald described Wolfson as "an irritant on the body of art".
"The danger is that the NGA has spent a lot of money on a novelty work whose shock value may not be sufficient to draw visitors in large numbers or have much lasting impact," McDonald said.
Artist and critic Adam Geczy, who teaches at the Sydney College of the Arts, said he believed the NGA had long used Blue Poles as a justification for "highly dubious" exorbitant purchases. He described the Wolfson acquisition as "astonishing" and a "cultural slap in the face".
"At a time when artists and curators are exploring alternative identities and looking at alternative cultural narratives, for the NGA to have parachuted down a straight, white male with an enviable art pedigree from New York, the global centre for art, and for top dollar to boot, is absurd," Dr Geczy said.
Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (detail) was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia for $1.3 million in 1973. It is now estimated to be worth $350 million.CREDIT:NGA
But Jarrod Rawlins, a curator at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) which has an extensive contemporary art collection, said Wolfson held "great interest" for him and Cube would attract new visitors to the NGA. Wolfson's virtual reality piece Real Violence, in which viewers witness the artist appear to beat a man to death, ran at capacity when it was shown at the museum's winter festival Dark Mofo in 2019.
"I've always been a fan of his work... He's had a very interesting career so far," Rawlins said. "I like the way he talks. He is very articulate and from my perspective, as you know, he takes risks and risks are important in art."
While the legacy of Blue Poles may run deep in Australia's cultural veins, influential contemporary art dealer and gallerist Anna Schwartz urged against cliched responses. Schwartz praised Mitzevich's "laudable ambition" and said it was "culturally destructive" for critics to make negative comments before having seen the work.
"What we really need in this country generally is a view of art that is pluralistic. Art doesn't have to be one thing and not another. Art is pluralistic," Schwartz said. "I hope that when this work arrives at the NGA people will embrace the experience and then make up their own minds. I hope they come to it with goodwill and curiosity."