Blog — 27 Jul 2018 — Laure van den Hout

Words in mirror image.
The right word in the wrong place
And the wrong word in the right place.
Robot words.
Words to stitch onto dream togas.

Hans Arp, Words (fragment), 1961
Translation: Tony Langham & Plym Peters
From: Hans Arp, Gesammelte Gedichte: Gedichte 1957-1966

“Of course”, I heard one visitor say, “It looks so real. That’s because of those little fingers. Did you see them? They all move so elegantly, quite separately from each other, as though they’re playing the piano in the air.” Of course, I’m also struck by her supple joints, shiny white leather boots, neatly combed hair, scantily clad body and bird mask. Of course, Female Figure is primarily a seductive, robotic female figure. And yet it’s something else that attracts my attention: her language and her speech, and in particular that one sentence: I’d like to be a poet.

Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014, Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014, Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

The reason that the words “I’d like to be a poet” are striking is because they deviate from the rest of Female Figure’s sentences. In fact her use of language – apart from a number of pop songs which can be heard as a playback – consists predominantly of statements. She says things like: “I’m gay” and “This is my house”. Or she recites a succession of phrases so that it seems as though she’s talking to herself or to her creator: “Say feeling love / Just say feeling love / Okay / Feeling love / Okay now what should I tell them / Tell them / Touch is love / Say touch is love / Touch is love / Touch is love / Now close your eyes / Now close your eyes / Now close your eyes / Close your eyes / Close your eyes.”

Instead of being something, the sentence “I’d like to be a poet” expresses a desire to become something.  Moreover, Female Figure wants to become something very specific. A poet. A real poet. A creator rather than a performer, a subject rather than an object. If you analyze the sentence, both the phrase “I’d like to be” and the phrase “a poet” reveals painful human emotions, viz: desire and significance.  A desire for significance. In this context it’s interesting to note that the etymology of the word poetry goes back to the Greek word poiesis, which means to make or create. Giving something a meaning (also) entails allowing something to become something different. It involves stretching a context or even creating a context.

Reading poetry means looking for meaning, again and again. Poetry disrupts our normal relationship to language; its basic motivation is to confuse our experience and our understanding of language. It kneads our brain and messes with the linguistic framework that we use to understand the world and with which we can translate this understanding and pass it on to others. It brings reality closer by expressing it, and at the same time it emphasizes the yawning gap between words and reality precisely by expressing it. In poetry we are aware that the words we use in our daily lives suddenly mean more and can communicate something different.

Arp seems to want to examine the relationship between the idea of “words” and words which express things

— Laure van den Hout

In his poem Worte, Hans Arp (1886 -1966) – artist, writer, poet and one of the pioneers of Dada – connects things that we may know, such as walks, mountains and flowers, to the word “words”. Arp comes up with all sorts of combinations: “words on walks”, “words from the mouth to the abyss”, “word to fish for in troubled waters”, “words from floating mountains/ or if you think this is pretentious / words from cloud mountains”. Arp seems to want to examine the relationship between the idea of “words” and words which express things (which in a sense reflects something from reality).

No matter how many words Arp comes up with, and no matter how he characterizes them, they constantly slip away. It’s like the sky or a meadow in an impressionist painting: blue brushstrokes or white touches which we then interpret as the sky, blobs of brownish white in the grass which can also suddenly turn into a herd of cows lying in the meadow. It requires us to interpret them and constantly throws us in at the deep end. There’s not just one answer, and you continue to see both sky and brushstrokes, both cows and thick blobs of paint.  Our own meaning, our own interpretation. The responsibility of looking.  This is also shown by Arp’s “dreaming flake world”, “superdoll words”, “flower words of superdoll flowers”, “words with ancient trains coughed up by their centrifugal salad shaker”, “balmy words” and “brook words”. They take you back to your own observation, to your own reading of the word. In the words of the poet Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953): “Just read it, it doesn’t say what it says.” (Just look, you don’t see what you see.)

Before I go any further I’d like to explain that it’s not my intention to pronounce on what poetry can do. What fascinates me is an artist who creates a robot sculpture and makes her say that she would like to be a poet. In this context I’d like to reflect on the fact that although her movements make her look real, it’s actually the words ‘I’d like to be a poet’ that make her human.

When reading poetry becomes a search for meaning, purification, understanding, despair, an absence of belief, confusion and wonder, it’s an experience which makes you feel profoundly human. She shows something that’s not yet available on demand: the ambiguity of a creation. Wolfson’s animatronics are not simply unambiguous either. This is clear from the remarks of the visitor who said that she looked so real because of the way in which she moved her “fingers”. By “real” he appears to mean physically real, or perhaps even human. But it is a robot.

In an ARTtube film which shows in particular the work Colored Sculpture that was exhibited during MANIC / LOVE, the first part of his exhibition in the Stedelijk, Wolfson remarks about animatronics: “There is something about movement and there is something about gravity that makes me, and what I also believe the viewer, to become present in their own body. That you actually have a kind of physical reaction to these things.” This awareness of your own physicality also plays an important role in Female Figure. I recognize what the visitor describes: seeing the precise movement of her fingers, it corresponds with the feeling of moving my own fingers in the same way. Her other movements have the same effect. I can feel the swaying of her hips in my own body.

Even though Female Figure has hinges where we have shoulders, and even though she’s connected to a mirror with a rod, the movements she makes are credible. This physicality evokes human associations.

You could extend the awareness of your own physicality to a consciousness of your own humanity, of being a human being. In this respect the facts that the animatronics talk – i.e., their language and speech – also has vital significance. Just as the movements make you aware of your body, the words (language) make you aware of your mind.

Language emphasizes the human desire for meaning. By naming something it becomes real, while it did not exist in that way before.  For example, Female Figure becomes gay with three simple words. The space she occupies becomes her house with four simple words. With language we can profile ourselves, create a world for ourselves. Speaking is creating, seeing. However, when someone says only (“I am”, “This is”) and does not express a desire (“I’d like to be”), he or she does reveal a mental world but seems less human. Wolfson clearly understood this and had Female Figure desire something. The nature of her desire is crucial in this respect. Wolfson did not choose for Female Figure to express an instinctive, and therefore animal desire such as lust, which would have been quite logical in view of her sexy dance moves and her outfit. Instead Wolfson gave her the desire to create something, and even had her specify this: “I’d like to be a poet”. This multiplicity of meanings, for a robot to desire to become something, and actually to be able to create something itself which can be understood by others – in other words, which urges others to become creative by attributing meaning to it – is what makes this statement fascinating and Female Figure human.