Inside the Watermill Center’s Annual Benefit, aka the “Burning Man of the Gala Scene”

See what you missed at this year's weird and wild Watermill Benefit.

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

“The Burning Man of the gala scene” is how one young patron described the Watermill Center’s annual benefit and auction, which took place this weekend on the performance art center’s sprawling campus in Water Mill, New York.

Helmed by theater director Robert Wilson, the Watermill Center is a “laboratory for performance” that maintains a reputation for encouraging the truly avant-garde—and for throwing a can’t-miss annual party featuring artists from its International Summer Program.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Upon arrival, guests were treated to cocktails made—we were told quite eagerly—with tequila from the George Clooney-sponsored brand Casamigos. Drinks in hand, we descended into the forest for a series of strange vignettes by the summer program’s residents, like a woman showering in an aluminum foil dress, a nearly-naked man covered in paint enacting a gymnastic dance routine, and a couple gazing longingly into each other’s eyes inside a giant papier-mâché apple.

There was a particular emphasis on sound installation this year, which ranged from large animal heads that bark “hello” and “hi” in a guttural register to a humming, labyrinthian work of stones best experienced alone.

It’s these moments in the woods that makes the event so special and bizarre, as it’s suddenly easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you while watching a man sing into a microphone emblazoned with a neon penis. It’s also rare to attend a party with so many opportunities for intense and reflective individual experiences.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Sierra “Rosie” Casady.
Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

The forest path eventually led to a wooden stage upon which Sierra “Rosie” Casady of CocoRosie, an operatic duo of “freak folk” sisters, was performing.

“Every so often Bob [Wilson] comes along and rearranges the whole [performance],” said Casady, who was orbited by several dancers in long white gowns. “We’ve been working for the last two days collaborating on costumes, stage blocking, and even some of the music. He just gets involved in everything.”

In 2013, Casady worked with Wilson in a Berliner Ensemble production of Peter Pan that featured original music by CocoRosie.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Following the performances, guests paused to consider silent auction highlights from David Gamble, Annie Leibovitz, James Clar, and Marina Abramović. The stone-filled courtyard nearby was swarmed with boldface names like Simon de Pury, Brooke Shields, Rufus Wainwright, Nicole Miller, John Varvatos, Christophe de Menil, Bob Colacello, Daniel Arsham, and Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova.

“It’s not a big deal for me,” Tolokonnikova said of how she feels being approached by photographers and reporters. “He’s actually the first person who has asked me,” she said, pointing to a party photographer who snapped her picture as we chatted. “I recently changed my hair…I used to be blonde, so maybe that’s it.”

“The Hamptons isn’t exactly known for its emphasis on social commentary,” said a nearby reporter.

We were all a bit surprised to see Tolokonnikova, as the air-kissing gala circuit doesn’t exactly seem like her scene, but then again, this isn’t your average gala. “For me, art is provocation,” she said. “Art should provoke you to think and it should react in some way, some unusual way.”

Thanks to Wilson, it’s getting just a little weirder and more wild each year, and that’s a step in the right direction.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Photo:  Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Sierra Casady Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Sierra “Rosie” Casady from CocoRosie.
Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Johan Bark Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Johan Bark posing on a “Zero Sum Sitting” chair sculpture by Jack Pavlik.
Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Simon de Pury Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan

Simon de Pury.
Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan.

Sierra Casady, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Brooke Shields Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Sierra Casady, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Brooke Shields.
Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Sierra Casady Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Sierra “Rosie” Casady from CocoRosie.
Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Brooke Shields Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Brooke Shields.
Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Rufus Wainwright Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Rufus Wainwright.
Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan.


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