Such is the conceit of Jordan Wolfson’s piece, ‘Real Violence’, showing at the Zabludowicz Collection until 21 October. We, the viewer, lie on the pavement of a wide Manhattan street, looking into a clear blue sky, while Jewish Hanukkah blessings are sung by a male voice. Cut to a young man in jeans and a red hoodie, who is kneeling on the pavement in front of you like a prisoner about to be executed. For a second, he looks at you. There’s another man — played by Wolfson — standing over him. He grabs a bat, takes a huge swing at Man 1’s skull. You can’t hear the impact over the singing, but you can almost feel it. Every effort has been made to have this seem as ‘real’ as possible. The attacker drops the bat, drags the body into a new position on the pavement, and proceeds to kick and stomp on the victim’s face, whilst blood gushes. This is brutal stuff. You’ll notice that there are no film stills available to illustrate this piece, but, with the headset on, there is nowhere to look away. Traffic is at a stand-still, cars lined up. No-one is coming to help. The piece lasts two-minutes and twenty-five seconds which, when you’re in it, feels endless, and — when you take off the headset — like it went a lot quicker.
Knowing a little about the piece before I went in, the experience was like a dare. Whispers about what was awaiting us in the gallery’s top room skittered about the exhibition downstairs. Think you can handle it? It's bit like going on a very realistic ghost train at a fairground, and there’s a handrail on the podium where the headset sits that adds to this impression. The relatively few VR works that I’ve seen so far, at Zabludowicz and elsewhere, have always been somewhat kitsch and crude: off we go into a liminal space, a dreamscape, maybe we have a few thrilling encounters with some nasties, and then we emerge on the other side. Ultimately, VR as a medium tends to feel a little hammy and I’ve come to expect light interest rather than a punch to the gut (or bat to the head) when I encounter it. Wolfson knows this better than anyone; in fact, he’s banking on it.