Robert Wilson on the Enduring Impact of Performance and Why Art Matters
We’ve likely all seen something divined by Robert Wilson. You may not have been to the theater to see one of his many showings of Krapp’s Last Tape or Einstein on the Beach, both of which are currently in production and are often in heavy rotation across the globe’s many playhouses. (The latter was written nearly 40 years ago with Philip Glass and has been staged over 20 times.) But Wilson’s haunting blend of classical theater, performance art, and minimalist aesthetics have left an unquestionable mark on performance that has seeped into numerous realms of culture, especially cinema, the visual arts, and pop. Lady Gaga even teamed up with Wilson for her “ArtPop” series, suggesting his aesthetic is instantly recognizable and his vision as in demand as ever. And yet, in between premiering new works, such as Faust I & II at the Berliner Ensemble and Adam’s Passion at the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn, Estonia this year, the maestro also finds time to be a mentor. “Yes, that’s exactly right,” Wilson says, “My father said if you’re blessed in life and you’re fortunate when you get older, you have to give it back to the earth—you can’t take it with you.”
Alongside his slew of creative endeavors (which extend beyond just the stage and into furniture design and visual portraits, too), Wilson has also developed a reputable laboratory for young talent in Watermill, on New York’s East End, amongst the fabled millionaire beach manors and historic artist compounds—those that the Abstract Expressionists once frequented. It was, after all, New York to which Wilson famously made a pilgrimage from Waco, Texas, leaving a conservative home in pursuit of a vocation. “I didn’t know anything about anything. I went to see Broadway shows and I didn’t like them, I went to the opera and I hated that, and then somebody took me to Judson Church and I saw what was going on there—Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage—and thought ‘wow that was so much more interesting.’”
Times have changed drastically since then. The city’s grit has given way to polished Manhattan apartment blocks and astronomical rents, and then-avant-garde practices are now widely embraced. “It’s sort of mainstream, performance art. Now they put it in museums!” he says. “I dunno, I’m 73, maybe I’m just old, but now it’s in art galleries and people pay a lot of money. You don’t see the art happening in lofts and factory space anymore, because the real estate is too expensive.” Wilson is used to navigating unchartered terrain. To work with him is to be pinned with the stamp of originality. His frequent collaborations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Marina Abramovic, and Willem DaFoe, especially in the case of Abramovic’s biographic opera Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, may appear to be archetypal but they never lack for a dose of uniqueness.
That a laboratory is crucial to the creative process remains inherent to Wilson’s own practice as well as to the Watermill Center. Each year he invites 20 artists or collectives for its residency program—wherein artists from a broad range of mediums “start here with a blank book—no one has any idea what they’re going to do. The great thing is that we do everything communally.” Housed in a former Western Union communication research facility, the 20,000-square-foot center expands across acreage cradled by forest and grassy plains that provide the backdrop for the 100 artists—the number he invited this year—to perform exclusively for the annual Watermill Benefit, known for not just its notable guest list but also its showcasing the next wave of avant-garde artists. “Here at Watermill, you put art anywhere. It can be in a building, in trees outside, in a field. They come here and just walk around and they find a space and think of something they want to.”
So just where is “avant-garde” these days? With Wilson being looked to for such clairvoyance, he offers, “We are always rediscovering what we’re born knowing. Socrates theorized that the baby is born knowing and it’s the uncovering of the knowledge.” For Wilson, however, an undetermined future underscores much of his understanding about creativity and producing. “What was interesting about [performance] was that these were events made for that moment that will never happen again. They were not meant to be repeated like Shakespeare, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Molière, Goëthe,” he says with only a faint trace of nostalgia. “I don’t see my work as being repeated, they’re like shooting stars in the moment.”
Yet, for Wilson, no schism arises from the ephemerality of performance and its ability to make an enduring impact. He counters that “we understand the nature of society through the individual and we understand the individual through the history of art.” His own mentoring philosophy pivots on the objects, artifacts, and canvases of history, and Watermill currently stewards around 8,000 artworks. “As a creative center, it’s important that we live with the knowledge of what happened in the past in culture,” he explains proudly, as he rambles through the objects that surround him. “Sitting in this room opposite me is a Chinese stone piece from 450 AD, next to an Eskimo mask. Next to that is a funeral urn from Colombia. It’s [from] about 1500 years ago. There’s a 19th-century Zulu pot; there’s a Chinese baby Buddha, and a Han Dynasty dancer next to a Cambodian 11th-century stone head. There’s a drawing by Betty Friedman, and a David Hockney.” And for the artist whose works eluded time and space themselves, he firmly believes: “Art is one of the few things that remains throughout time. If we don’t protect and support art, then we lose it, and if we lose our culture, we lose our memory.”