Robert Wilson Plans a ‘Library of Inspiration’

Watermill's high priest discusses nudity, high society, and his generation.

Robert Wilson, when we speak by phone from the Hamptons (at his end, not mine), is hurried, gracious, and bubbling with news. He’s just gotten back from a meeting with prominent architect Roger Ferris and they’ve decided to go ahead with an expansion of his beloved Watermill Center performance-art lab. A new large, library that should be completed in about three years, Wilson brags, will be completely underground—and will be “what no one else is doing.”

The same can be said of Watermill itself. There are many institutions in the art world that lie on the continuum between “High Society” and “Hip.” But Robert Wilson’s leafy enclave/artspace/school off Towd Road is perhaps the only one that sits smack-dab comfortably in the middle. If stripper Dita von Teese is dangling on a trapeze over a dinner for Arabian Sheikhas, Taubman mall billionaires and Goldman Sachs-ers, it must be July at Watermill.

Wilson is busily preparing for his $15,000-per-table annual bacchanal/gala when we speak, due to be held Saturday, July 26th. At the event, his 21st one, he’s premiering new photographs he’s done of Lady Gaga, and the surrounding forest will be surrendered, as it always is, to various elaborate and immersive performance pieces set off by tiki torches, drums, giant webs, costumes, and/or bright flashes of nudity.

But performance art, at least when it comes to the audience, is nothing like it used to be, says the senior legend of the field. “What’s happened is that the general public has become more visually aware.”

When he first did pieces years ago, people would ask, What is it? Is it really a play?

He would say, No, it’s not a play.

They would ask, Is is really a dance?

He would say, No, it’s not a dance.

But “now we understand what performance art is,” he says.

“I just did Einstein on the Beach again,” he continues. When he premiered it, “a lot of people were very puzzled. Now, it’s 38 years later and young kids seem to be the most responsive. They have no problem sitting there and watching something visual. It doesn’t have to be narrative.” In part, he says, it’s because all the textbooks they have are mostly pictures.

The Watermill students are different too, he notes—and in a surprisingly wonderful way. They come from 27 nations for this year’s summer program but “people are more tolerant of their beliefs and countries of origin . . . much more tolerant of one another.” He adds, happily: “Its not like foreigners coming anymore, they are familiar” to each other.

Watermill’s annual charity auction, helmed by our own columnist Simon de Pury, is something of a Magic 8 Ball of the art world, showing who’s in power now but who may matter next. There’s a work donated by Wilson friend and fan Anselm Kiefer. There are digital prints donated by the Dash Snow estate. There are works by the Kabakovs, Ross Bleckner, e.v. day, Julian Schnabel, and some lesser-known names perhaps lucky to be showcased in such a venue: Sam Falls and Ray Smith among them.

As for the expansion project, it’s at the early stages, but “we’re planning now a Library of Inspiration,” he says, with the giddy, infectious delight of a child. Plans are sketchy so far, but it will feature both books and art (including Wilson’s wonderful Tribal Art collection). These days “you don’t need math or history anymore because that’s in a computer—but you can’t replace intuition.”

It will be designed by Ferris, a board member who is principally known for the Watermill complex and for transforming Bridgehampton’s Motor Racing Circuit into the striking and elegant Bridge Golf Club clubhouse, which the New York Times enthused resembled “a glass and concrete lotus.”

After the party confetti settles, the next major project for Wilson is one he admits he’s daunted by. “Goethe’s Faust part one or two—in German! His is a classic story and it still fascinates us.” He’s learning it now. The production will premiere in Berlin and then, possibly, tour.

Meanwhile, for the partiers among us, the theme of the gala this year is “One Thousand Nights and One Night: Sleepless nights of Shererazade.” It will not be an understated event. The invitation says “dress code: bazaar chic” but Wilson’s tip for guests is more specific. “Dress sexy and exotic.”


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