There was a whiff of the occult in the air as guests at the Watermill Center’s STAND benefit filed through the forest on a pine needle-strewn path surrounded on all sides by tiki torches and lined with performance works was.
On the first track, a man poked his head out of a large egg sculpture and whispered, cackled, and sang, “Welcome to the Watermill Center!” in a voice my companion described as “servile but sinister.” Statues of Liz Glynn stood squarely in the middle, separating the crowd of photographers. The fire cast shadows across the intricately carved faces that emerged from otherwise raw, elemental bodies. spooky. We passed a grave carved into the carefully manicured lawn; squirming inside was a man wearing a hat streaked with lightbulbs. As we walked up the stairs to the actual Watermill Center, the grounds opened up to reveal a party in full swing.
The Watermill Center’s annual summer benefit is one of the Hamptons’ most anticipated summer events, a far cry from the sit-down dinner galas that mark the fundraising season for cultural institutions along the East End. Instead, the night is laced with performance works, music, and visual art exhibitions created by artists-in-residence and others. Behind the event – and actually the entire institution – is Robert Wilson, the founder and artistic director of the center.
Wilson has had a long and distinguished career as an experimental theater director. He is best known for avant-garde opera Einstein on the beach, which he made in collaboration with composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs. The fruit of his success can be seen in the center, which houses his large collection. A mix of folk art, furniture design, a theatrical production archive and visual works by artists such as Canadian-American abstract painter Agnes Martin and American sculptor Richard Serra, the collection is unique and reflects a man of many interests.
The center is also home to artists, writers and academics who live, create and work with the collection as part of the institution’s acclaimed artist residency program.
Last weekend’s party marked the 30th anniversary of the STAND Benefit, and accordingly, Wilson capped the night with an exhibition of great personal significance: a presentation of the work of Christopher Knowles.
“It was a dream of mine to show his work like this,” said 80-year-old Wilson ARTnews, as he perched on a chair from which he could watch the comings and goings of the partygoers. Wilson has been both a patron and collaborator of Knowles since the artist was a child. Wilson wove through Knowles’ poetry Einstein on the beach and even cast him in production as a teenager.
“I found him in a brain injury facility,” Wilson said, looking off into the distance. “He’s a genius and I thought, why should he be ‘corrected’? He came to live with me.”
Knowles is said to have suffered some type of brain damage at birth and is considered autistic. Wilson first found out about him when a family friend gave him an audio work entitled Emily likes the TV (circa 1970). The looping track – which sparked the lifelong relationship between Wilson and Knowles – filled the exhibition hall inside, adorned with Knowles’ visual works that included long stacks of paper and a typewriter. Emily likes the TV boomed with a hypnotic beat, “Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV because she watches TV, because she likes it.”
On the ground floor, Robert Nava’s explosively colorful, childlike paintings provided an interesting contrast to Knowles’s repetitive, meticulous work. Present at this weekend’s benefit event were Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery, representing Nava, and Glimcher’s wife, Fairfax Dorn, co-founder of Ballroom Marfa.
Emily likes the TV set the tone for the rest of the evening’s offerings, which had a similar trance-like effect. In the distant woods, where the last evening light slanted through a ring of trees, a musician played an electric guitar. Across the way was Korean choreographer Taeyi Lim, performing a work entitled Leave This included inspecting and interacting with a cloth ball and chain attached to her ankle. Deeper in the forest, a woman was playing a chimeric instrument, something between a trumpet and what appeared to be a Chinese erhu, a two-stringed violin-like instrument. Down on the green lawn, where people drank rosé and toasted hors d’oeuvres and seafood stew, NiNi Dongnier, a choreographer who works between New York, Beijing and Vancouver, would sometimes push and pull on a giant ball of fluorescent green wool, colliding with seated guests in a sort of slow-motion train wreck that usually ended with lots of trigger clicks and quick grabs to rescue upturned drinks.
The last performance of the benefit broke the atmosphere of the night’s mellow moods with an unexpected climax. Japanese performance artist and artist-in-residence Tsubasa Kato presented a monumental work entitled go Manhattan. The wooden sculpture, about 20 feet tall, looked like a boat tethered tightly to a scaffolding with many ropes attached to both ends. Guests should work together to pull the ropes to rotate the sculpture from a horizontal to a vertical position. Men in loafers and white pants, and women who hadn’t been wearing heels, quickly picked up the ropes using the attached handles.
After a ten-second countdown, the partygoers heaved and the sculpture held firm. The guests, now performers, continued to pull powerfully individually, but with no group coordination. Kato ran around with a megaphone, telling the guests to gather at the other end of the sculpture, with orders to push and eventually lift it. Raymond Bulman, director of The Hole gallery, used his amazing size to get the thing airborne.
Finally, miraculously, it began to lift, its enormous weight rising into the air. It staggered momentarily toward the crowd that had tried so hard to pull it towards them.
Luckily no massacre followed.