Painted Ladies, Buried Artists and a Steamroller, at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Benefit

We were up to our necks in art.

  • The panic began early. But was it voluptuous?

    A crowd had gathered outside the entrance to artist and director Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center early Saturday evening. Women in flowing sundresses and men in summer suits blocked a portion of Watermill Towd Road. They were eager to get in. The annual gala, called “Voluptuous Panic,” was set to begin at 6 p.m., but Robert Wilson sent a message to the front desk.

    He wasn’t ready.

    That wasn’t surprising: the Watermill Center’s gala–this is its 18th–isn’t any ordinary gala. It’s a full-on Robert Wilson production. It comes complete with artists’ installations and performances, presented on what amounts to an elaborate stage set. When guests were finally permitted to enter, around 6:20 p.m., they walked down a pine needle path flanked by tiki torches, and waiters wearing, on their faces, what appeared to be spiky sculptures made of tin foil. The waiters proffered trays of pink lemonade and Grey Goose. Guests, The Observer among them, made their way past these servers, and past a tree, its trunk engulfed in another tin foil sculpture, only to encounter a performer wearing an elaborate wig and burdened with a facsimile of giant breasts strapped to her chest.

    It was only the beginning.

    Past that performer there were others, in a darkened room with a floor made of large stones. Women in high heels teetered on the stones, past performers with long hair blocking their faces, swaying in dance-like motions. A fellow journalist leaned in to The Observer. “Voluptuous panic,” he murmured. “That’s got to be the name of a nail polish at Urban Outfitters.”

    But on to the main show!

    The darkened room opened up onto a large yard at the center of which a steamroller containing an ensemble of musicians steamrolled around in a circle, flattening a pile of sand. It was a piece by artist Peter Coffin. In the center of the sand circle were several female performers, wearing bikinis, their skin entirely coated in silver paint–-an artwork by Atopos CVC and Charlie Le Mindu. The steamroller went round. The musicians played their music, the silver women danced and writhed. The Observer stood at a table, drinking a watery mojito, sufficiently transfixed that she was nearly run down by a passing golf cart, driven by a man in a T-shirt, jeans, and a silver mask in the shape of a horse’s head.

    And there was more! A copse of trees beckoned…

    Nestled in the copse of trees were more artworks, more performances. A semicircular arrangement of tall stones evocative of Stonehenge lent a pagan aspect to the place. A man with a long ponytail ran on a treadmill; above him a neon sign flashed the words “exit,” “exist,” “sexisto.” (Sexisto?) It was an artwork by Alejandro Moreno. The treadmill rushed and whirred, obscured by underbrush, but wait… what was that? Singing? Coming from… the ground?

    “Love lift us up where we belong,” exhausted-sounding voices crooned. It was performance artist Ryan McNamara, buried, along with a fellow performer, such that only their two heads were visible above the carpet of pine needles. Microphones lay next to their mouths. They looked hot, and tired.

    “Sarah?” Mr. McNamara groaned imploringly, calling out to The Observer by name. “Can you give me a raspberry?” The Observer dredged a soggy raspberry from her drink and deposited it in Mr. McNamara’s mouth. It was the least we could do. It’s tough being a performance artist.

    Then it was on to other performances. In one by Carlos Soto and Jake Schitling a figure with a long black wig that obscured his face lay atop another performer, who was naked. The long-haired one mock-attacked the prone one with a microphone. Wasn’t this, The Observer wondered, the plot of any number of Asian horror movies? A wraith with stringy black hair obscuring its face comes back from the dead to terrorize teenagers?

    Onwards. The Observer mounted a wooden deck on which performers were swinging in swings. Among those watching them was publicist Susan Martin, a compact, energetic woman wearing a glittery blouse. “I produced Robert Wilson’s first performance on the West Coast,” she said, informing us that it would be re-produced early next year, at the Los Angeles gallery Redcat, as part of “Pacific Standard Time,” a wide-ranging exhibition put on by several L.A. institutions. “It was in 1977,” she continued. “I was sitting on my patio I saw this guy I thought I was hallucinating.”

    Wait. What do you mean? The Observer asked.

    “That was the name of the performance,” she said. “I was sitting on my patio. I saw this guy. I thought I was hallucinating.” She added, “You know, when I say Bob’s name in L.A., to young people in the art world, I see a question mark over their heads. In the 1970′s we were an art organization. Not theater.” She hinted that the re-production would have “snazzy casting,” but would tell us no more.

    We are intrigued.

    Past the trees, the silent auction tent. There was work by a number of young artists and some mid-career figures. There was disappointment that the piece by Tauba Auerbach had already sold, for $7,000. So it goes, folks. As the work of Jacob Kassay proved last year at the Kitchen, you have to act fast at these charity things.

    Guests began moving in to the dinner. The tables’ centerpieces were giveaway pillows fashioned after unusual objects. At The Observer’s table, a pillow in the form of the book The Joy of Sex was hotly contested; curator Sarah Aibel took it home.

    The event was packed–-highest attendance yet, boasted Watermill director Jorn Weisbrodt, taking the stage as diners tucked into their spiced olives and caprese with heirloom tomatoes. “It’s our fullest night ever,” he beamed at his audience. “We sold out Wednesday. So there are no bad seats. A lot of people called Wednesday. They are home, so they have worse seats than you.” (It was later announced that some 1,100 people had dropped by during the evening.)

    The crowd was packed with art world notables. Performa director RoseLee Goldberg sat nearby. In an evening of strange juxtapositions, the strangest may have been painter Richard Phillips seated next to Katie Lee.

    But also, Rufus Wainwright was there. Ross Bleckner was there. Alan Cumming was there, walking a dog. Klaus Biesenbach was there. So were Cindy Sherman, Bob Colacello, Jay McInerney, Stella Schnabel and Roger Waters.

    Robert Wilson took the stage. He walked around for a moment or two. He took a breath. There was a long, dramatic pause. Then he thanked “Eighty plus emerging artists” for celebrating his 70th birthday. (He turns 70 this fall.) He talked about an adjacent facility that he has been trying to build underground, and said he will “go forth” with it. “We have a plan… We are more than halfway there.”

    He stopped talking. Guests applauded, and started eating again.

    Artist Peter Coffin, a tall, genial redhead, visited The Observer’s table. We liked the steamroller piece, we told him. But what did he make of “Voluptuous Panic”? What did it mean? “I have absolutely no idea!” he admitted. Then pondered. “A voluptuous woman. In a panic!”

    Fair enough.

    On deadline for another article, The Observer darted for the door just as Philips de Pury & Co. head auctioneer Simon de Pury began the live auction portion of the evening. We missed the tiramisu push-pops; we missed LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang DJing. Outside the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of Robert Wilson’s center, Water Mill was, well, just regular old Water Mill, calm on a balmy night; so ended, for us at least, a kaleidoscopic event that, as we would find out two days later, raised almost $1.5 million.