Tops Off for Jordan Wolfson

There's this thing in Glasgow where, at parties or occasionally in clubs, the male students on the Fine Art MFA at the School of Art take their tops off. Someone shouts, 'TOPS OFF!' and then they take their tops off and dance.

Actually, according to Liz who I stayed with while I was in Glasgow, the pronunciation is more like, 'TAPS AFF!'

I know this because on Thursday night, before we went to the Art School for the opening party of the 2014 Glasgow International Festival, we went to Liz's studio so I could drop off my luggage and drink some wine. At one point, as Liz and some other people smoked in the kitchen, I stood next to a fake leather sofa speaking to Kev and someone called Stef (who was beautiful with a big nose which is like one of the features I find really attractive and I was wondering whether I could maybe try and come on to her later but I never did because she disappeared at some point in the evening and so instead I just drank as much gin as I could manage and flirted with someone I know from London until I realised she had a boyfriend.). They were trading funny stories about Venice and Kev got over excited and spilled red wine all over his shirt and the fake leather sofa.

He jumped up from the sofa and we followed him into the kitchen to help clean the wine off, but before we could find a cloth, he had removed his shirt, exposing his back and a small amount of arse, to the amusement of everyone but particularly to Liz and her friends Erin and Amy who kept shouting, 'TAPS AFF! TAPS AFF!!' as they smoked their cigarettes and everyone laughed and Kev demanded to know if anyone had a hair dryer.


I'd heard about Jordan Wolfson's work via Lucy at Open School. She had sent round a Frieze blog about his video piece, Raspberry Poser at Chisenhale Gallery. In the article, Jonathan P. Watts writes about the experience of attending a memorial service for what would have been Derek Jarman's 72nd birthday, and then the next day, visiting Wolfson's Chisenhale show.

The blog makes a powerful point about Wolfson (who is straight), appropriating the HIV virus as a found object for aesthetic purposes (literally - in the video 3D animated HIV cells bounce up and down in New York streets and luxury interiors),

'If Wolfson has anxieties about his own private wealth, his own tendency for posturing, his own megalomaniac neuroses, the legacy of the AIDS crisis should not be a vehicle for this.'

Lucy made it clear that she fully agreed with the writer's sentiment. The word trespassing came up a lot in the discussions we had. I hadn't seen the work, I said, but I wondered if respecting limits to who should access certain histories might play into a wider, less politically admirable notion that certain histories should remain ghettos.

I missed the Chisenhale show, but I finally saw Wolfson's work at McLellan Galleries as part of Glasgow International. Raspberry Poser was there, alongside previous works dating back to 2004.

Some of the show left me cold - I'm not so interested in The Digital as subject matter and various works of 3D animation transferred to 16mm seemed to inhabit the tendency of some artists to see contemporary technology as necessarily interesting.

But a few films stood out for me because of the discomfort and pleasure I felt while watching them. Particularly Raspberry Poser (2012) and Animation, Masks (2011).

They stood out because the voice that came through seemed to speak from the end of completed journey, a project to acquire total inauthenticity, a radicalised bourgeois nihilism. Or maybe just an honesty and a tiredness.

After so much discussion, watching Raspberry Poser was an experience in deja vu, with each scene ticking a box in my head. I waited for the bouncing HIV cells. I waited for the little boy to eviscerate himself. Whether you felt the film reduced HIV to a luxury digital object or freed the HIV virus cell object from its historical and political trappings would depend on your political viewpoint, but it wasn't really about the history of HIV or gay identity. In a way, to fit into the discussion that had sparked my interest in the first place, the film needed to be more direct than it was, to be more about the things it represented. But it wasn't. And its ambivalence seemed to suggest that agency had been deferred away from the artist who made it. Even when he appeared as a performer in the film, made up as a punk with a leather jacket and shaven head, Wolfson seemed embarrassed and unsure of his place in the making of the work. Unsure of what it was and what it might produce once out in the world.

Animation, Masks contained moments of gleefully misogynistic eroticism (or at least, it presented scripted moments of gleefully misogynistic eroticism). A pillow talk conversation, voiced by an animated stereotype of a Jew ended with a male voice (Wolfson?) forcing a woman to repeat the phrase 'I like it when you tell me what to do', over and over again. The most appropriate public response would be an awkward laugh. But privately I was turned on by the conversation between the man and the woman. Or maybe it would be more precise to say I was turned on by my understanding of the transgressive nature of presenting such a conversation in an artwork. I didn't "agree" with the film, but then what would that even mean? Who would I be agreeing with? It was so constructed and yet it repelled any reading of its author's intention. A shrug of the shoulders with an erection.


In the cab to an exhibition at the Botanical Gardens we spoke about Wolfson's show. John Ryan said that Wolfson had given a lecture at Glasgow School of Art where he'd said something like, 'I'm one of the the best artists in the world right now, and that's because I practise transcendental meditation'.

I said that I'd tried meditating a few times. The first time I couldn't think of a mantra and accidentally got the words 'Transcendental meditation' stuck in my head. I said that when I cycled I sometimes thought the phrase, 'Strong, powerful movements of the leg'. The second time I tried to meditate, I got that stuck in my head.


That evening, after drinking all afternoon, we went to a party at the Barrowlands in the East End of Glasgow. We danced a lot, a pissed art crowd of people who'd been at the festival for the weekend.

Occasionally I shouted, 'TOPS OFF!' at Liz, and Liz shouted 'TOPS OFF!' back at me. We were surrounded by her friends from the MFA who I didn't really know, but I still shouted it. It seemed funny at the time. Eventually one of the boys did take their tops off. And then, after some initial apprehension in the group, they all started taking their tops off and there was a mass of shirtless male students in the centre of the dance floor, bouncing around to the music. Women were occasionally pulled into the group, expressing a mixture of horror and humour on their faces. It looked funny but not fun.

I kept my top on and carried on dancing, occasionally turning to marvel at the fleshy mass spinning in front of me. They stank. I wasn't sure whether it was just because they no longer had shirts to soak up the sweat, or whether the adrenaline was releasing some kind of homo-social musk.

At the climactic moment of the evening (or the nadir, depending on how you were feeling), the DJ played Love is in the Air by John Paul Young and people danced hard like at the end of a wedding. There were a lot of hands in the air and pointing of fingers and some of them were mine.

The music finished and the lights came up and I stood watching as a mass of drunken, dishevelled people milled around trying to work out where the party was. I felt turned on then too, but not by anyone in particular, just by the sweat on everyone's bodies that refused to smell like anything else.