The affliction of horror is an experience both embodied and detached. White washes over your face, the blood rushes from your cheeks toward more essential functions. Capillaries constrict, drawing what they can spare. Your body hollows. Fear is rooted in uncertainty, but its sensation is a bodily affliction as much as a mental one. Entire markets have been built on its replication, assimilation, and distribution.
To feel horror is unbearable, but to experience its aesthetized and familiar representation is to only think it is unbearable. While the qualities of this “aesthetic horror” in the twenty-first century remain marked by Gothic traits—such as myth or metaphor, the supernatural and uncanny, the corporeal and cruel—they are no less present in our contemporary vernacular. In the face of ever-absorbed atrocities, a society steeped in an unending spectacle of suffering, the terror present in our time is entirely un-supernatural, immediate, and close. In the context of a global crisis fueled by fear, how dissimilar are today’s monsters from Gothic renderings of the other?
Artists such as Dora Budor, Jon Rafman, Cindy Sherman, and Jordan Wolfson, among others, have navigated horror in recent exhibitions. But in place of its Gothic tropes—the monster or vampire, the splintered tree, the pseudo-scientific gore—an alternate series of archetypes arises: perversely animated hybrid machines, artificially superstitious installations, and self-aware mutilations. Anxieties persist to manifest as apparitions. As if lifted out of the barren and alienated landscape of Romantic fiction, the white cube of the gallery ascends as an otherwise blank setting, a virtual fabrication ripe for pathetic fallacy. We are reminded how often ghosts in films are reflected in the mirror. How the gruesomely aging portrait betrayed its subject. Mediated horror, so present in film and literature, has become ever more prevalent in the aesthetic realm of contemporary art. However, the reversion to nineteenth-century tactics begs: does the increase in picturing monstrosity lie in response to a demand for the art world to shock and revolt, or to an outward zeitgeist—a reaction to the times?
Jordan Wolfson, Colored Sculpture, 2016. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York
In Jordan Wolfson’s installation, Colored Sculpture, which debuted at David Zwirner in New York in 2016, a marionette of a young boy, bound and suspended in chains, is thrashed along an animated circuit. The attacks would be murderous if performed on the human body. As he is pulled and thrown across the space, lacerations streak across his limp figure. While the manic hysteria of the work is calculated—the code is pre-arranged, embedded in the piece’s software—the attack is no less severe. Colored Sculpture, an agent of spectacle and farce, is a caricature of horrific manifestation so acutely focused and built as an image—the gallery its theatrical stage—that its inevitable photographic dissemination functions voyeuristically. It is made to be captured by the camera, circulated by its viewers. Each image is crystalline—splintering and refracting with each gaze into new fetishistic possibilities. In Female Figure (2014), Wolfson’s first animatronic work, also on view in the exhibition, the experience was heightened to the status of an erotic nightmare. Attached to the mirrored gallery wall by a rigid pole inserted into her abdomen, the pale blond witch dances garishly and gruesomely. She twists, trapped in her reflection.
Through the mirror, we experience her performance as a reproduction. She faces it eternally. In her 1997 text on the uncanny, Rosalind Krauss describes “the strategic achievement of anxiety” through Hans Bellmer’s Dolls (1933–34), whose formula is “to produce the image of what one fears, in order to protect oneself from what one fears.” Indeed, traversing into and out of fear is a formula that Wolfson practices well—not as an elegant and complete proof, but rather a fragment of the equation, an imperfect fraction. The comparison to Bellmer here is useful, especially in considering the viral photographic expectation of Wolfson’s work. In his latest work on view at the Whitney Biennial, Real Violence, photographic evidence of the piece is rendered impossible—it its place, the documentation pictures participants in VR headsets, sometimes horrified, fidgeting, as they witness a life-like act of extreme violence. Real Violence extends the image of horror onto the audience itself.
Just as the photographs of Bellmer’s Dolls were as important as the three-dimensional works they depicted, so too is Wolfson’s attitude toward the image. For Bellmer, the emulation of torture was less sadistic so long as it functioned as an image, less menacing than the thing itself. Bellmer’s argument held weight at the time. In the twenty-first century, however, where the visual experience of anxiety is nearly synonymous with the digital distribution of the image, Wolfson questions whether such a division (between the original action and its simulacra) is even possible. In both Bellmer and Wolfson’s work, it is the viewer, not the artist, who performs the narrative function of the image. Frankenstein may have been galvanized to life, but was left to feel through the world on his own.
Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), 1936. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York
For Wolfson, the image of horror is detached from its experience. While this disjuncture is performed in the gallery under the guise of an assault, the motivation of the work lies in its hyper-visibility. Alternately, the fugitive quality of the horror image is explored in a recent installation by Cindy Sherman, as part of her inclusion in the exhibition Fade In: Int. Art Gallery—Day at the Swiss Institute in 2016, which assembled 25 international artists along the theme of art’s appearance in classic films. Summoning the eponymous portrait from the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Sherman’s installation featured the original prop of the painting, which she hung as part of a diptych next to an identically scaled painting veiled in an opaque black velvet sheath. Shrouded, the subject of the painting doubles in its desire to be exposed: what monstrosity lies beneath its surface? Through the structure of a comparative exercise—the exposed portrait, steadfast and youthful, in contrast with the restricted image on the other—Sherman elicits dialectic potential. Of course, the one on the left is surrendered as the fake; its source as a set-design, well-known and expected per the exhibition’s parameters, betrays its artificial purpose as soon as it is installed. The one on the right, however, remains covert, elusive, obscure. The viewer’s will to uncover, peel away, colonize, and conquer the image is the grotesque transformation Sherman frames. Through the lure of presence and absence, both Sherman and Wolfson’s works perform on the plane of the image; while the subject of horror inhabits the work, it is not embodied.
Dora Budor, The Architect's Plan, His Contagion, and Sensitive Corridors, Installation view at New Galerie, Paris, 2015. Courtesy the artist and New Galerie
Also on view in the Swiss Institute exhibition was work by Dora Budor, whose practice is concerned with the aesthetics of science-fiction film, translated into minimal and hybrid sculptural forms. Budor’s monstrosity aims to replicate the relationship to the other through the estrangement of the body. In recent installations, such as The Architect’s Plan, His Contagion, and Sensitive Corridors (2015), on view at New Galerie in Paris, and Inhuman (2015) at the Fridericanum in Kassel, a series of wall works featured silicone flesh toned surfaces, blemished with SFX transfer scars and wounds. In the center of the space, a light pink upholstered leather chair with a black plastic base was installed. Entitled Mental Parasite Retreat I (2014), its material is peeled away (as if torn through the skin) to reveal the prosthetic cast of a cyborg’s chest. In both instances, the sculpture and paintings transition between object and body, body and object. This inter-state nature produces an insecure sense of repulsion and attraction to their forms. In her most recent installation, Adaptation of an Instrument (2016), included in the Whitney’s Dreamlands: Immersive Art and Cinema, 1905–2016, thousands of special-effect prop frogs used in the 1999 film Magnolia cover the dimly-lit, pallid green ceiling of the pavilion-like space, reminiscent of other, more ominous scenes in biblical horror. For Budor, the body is mutable and profane—in place of the psychological potentials of both Wolfson and Sherman’s installations, her work falls into a more typically gore vein of Gothic horror.
Dora Budor, Installation view of Adaptation of an Instrument included in Dreamlands: Immersive Art and Cinema, 1905–2016. Courtesy the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art
All of these works fall within the experience of aestheticized horror. The fissure between image and experience—i.e., the image of fear, and the experience of terror—could be said to identify as the fiction its genre has built upon for centuries. The success of horror’s reproducibility as a circulated form has in the past lied in its ability to separate the two faculties of sense: the mind from the body. However, wars now stream by our portable screens, genocides are performed in the age of the sharable content. Our times are not sheltered. Palpable atrocities are available via algorithm. As the proliferation of horror in the digital economy becomes more rapidly available, the removed representation typical of the genre has the potential to transcend fiction. The image and experience of fear comes closer to consolidation. Aesthetic horror is necessary now more than ever.
Jon Rafman’s recent exhibition at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles emulates embodied experience closely. If the potential success of aesthetic horror is marked through the integration of visuality and experience, the dual-register of Rafman’s manipulations between subject and circumstance achieves this end. Installed in the second floor galleries, distended foam seating structures—ghastly and bloated forms, painted in sinuous grey and flesh tones—set a post-apocalyptic tone for Rafman’s hallucinatory, gruesome, and manic films and animations. In the film Poor Magic (2017), an aerial view depicts simulated landscapes, each pared down and virtually “setting-less,” anonymous and game-like. Upon these backdrops, semi-transparent and faceless figures gather in groups, or sometimes disperse; their bodies are malleable, unceremoniously colliding, crashing into one another, treated as pure boneless matter. The human quality of the animations fades upon extended viewing. In one of the scenes, they fall off the precipice of a hard-edged plane, following one another in a suicidal algorithm. In another animated film, Open Heart Warrior (2016), installed on a three-channel monitor, a picturesque scene of a forest peels away to reveal a small dark room where a horrific body lies, skinned alive yet still breathing. Feeling the awful support beneath you as you watch, that petrified foam, the separation between photograph and sensation falls away. While Wolfson’s work nears this precipice, it relies too heavily on the reproducible image to transcend the formal representation of the grotesque—the completion of the image of horror as an experience in Budor and Sherman’s approach is similarly halted. For Rafman, anxiety heightens, paranoia persists. His portrait of contemporary consciousness is unrelenting, bleak and savage.
Jon Rafman, Open Heart Warrior, 2016, Installation view of Jon Rafman/Stan VanDerBeek, Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, January 20–March 4, 2017. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer. Courtesy Sprüth Magers
The image and feeling of horror coalesce as one. With respect to all representative forms within the genre, art has struggled to picture its own obsolescence in representing evil, in conjuring real terror. Rafman exposes the latency of representation to elicit both registers of horror, locating a responsive potential for contemporary art to address fear. Without this entry, aesthetic horror is removed and metaphoric. It is not unbearable; it is iconoclastic, safe, manipulated, controlled: the picture of a body in crisis.
Blood rushes out of the cheeks, veins constricting on the heels of the body politic.
Stephanie Cristello is a Senior Editor at ArtSlant.
 Rosalind Krauss, “Uncanny,” in Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, New York 1997, pp.192–197
(Image at top: Left: Henrique Medina, Portrait of Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, 1945. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Right: Cindy Sherman, The Evil Twin, 2016. Hidden painting, black velvet. Courtesy of the artist)