Things tend to be surreal at Watermill Center’s annual benefit, and this year was no different. One performer was left suspended in a bath of water drawing on Hamlet’s Ophelia. Another melted a block of ice with body heat alone, while a third sat still inside a police car as it was axed apart by a team of mechanics—a process that unfolded over two hours, as guests looked on.
All this took place on Saturday night in the Hamptons, where a modest size art crowd flocked to Long Island’s East End for the center’s annual STAND benefit held at the Watermill Center. This year’s event was themed around “The Body,” and saw artists pushing their corporeal limits.
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The performance art center sits on a sprawling wooded property that bills itself as a testing ground, residency, and “laboratory” for experimental artists and performers. Founded in 1992 by artist and theater director Robert Wilson, Watermill is home to his collection and archive.
The benefit has for years been an attraction in the summer months as commerce quiets down and art world insiders leave the city for more scenic locales. Previous editions have featured 10 or so performances spread across the center’s grounds, taking place inside a concrete lobby and across a substantial gravel courtyard that opens into moss-covered backwoods.
Each year, the personalities attending range widely, from academic types to those with celebrity ties. Among them this year were artists Coco Fusco, Robert Longo, and Daniel Arsham, as well as actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and designer Carolina Sarria.
On view in the center’s galleries was a career-spanning survey dedicated to the Regina José Galindo, a Guatemalan performance artist. A 2005 recipient of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion award for young artists, Galindo is known for putting herself in dangerous scenarios as a way to respond to conflicts affecting her home country. She’s been suspended from cranes in crowded public squares and has stood naked in cornfields that were being culled by workers; documentation of these works figured prominently in the show.
Galindo herself was on hand at the benefit, staging a new performance called SIREN in Watermill’s courtyard. She arranged to have a police car parked outside the main entrance, its sirens left to wail while partiers milled around. Guests were unable at first to discern if the car was just a prop, and questioned when the noise would stop. As the night went on, a group of 10 or so local mechanics from the East End began to disassemble the vehicle in something like a reverse-engineered riot, cutting it down the middle and eventually dismantling its roof, all while Galindo sat in the back seat unresponsive.
Mechanics contracted for the job were new to the center. One of them, Gurcan Akis, said they had been hired just a week ahead of Saturday’s performance, and had been promised payment and insurance. Akis, speaking on behalf of the group, said a few of the men got nervous when the metal cutting got too close, so they’d been directed to slow down as the performance played out.
Galindo conceived SIREN in response to a 2020 study from the University of Chicago about the use of lethal force in US cities. The report’s authors found that most city police departments were not compliant with international law. Galindo praised her collaborators’ control, saying that throughout the 2 hours and 20 minutes the action lasted, Akis’s group “kept everything very focused.”
In other works, the elements figured prominently. Ola Maciejewska, a Polish choreographer and Water Mill resident, was the artist behind Second Body, the ice block performance. Over the course of an hour, she melted the ice using her bare torso. Meanwhile, in the woods, guests, Campari in hand, came across Katimari Niskala, a Finnish artist floating face-up in a shallow pool of water.
By night’s end, Maciejewska and Niskala were not the only ones drenched. A downpour descended, forcing the guests inside, where some encountered works by the late American sculptor Paul Thek. Attendees filtered into the center’s second-floor exhibition space where they viewed a severed limb cloaked in animal fur that revealed the inside of a faux carcass. Reactions ranged from intrigue to disgust, as the work, a part of a larger presentation focused more broadly on Thek’s legacy, served as a twisted interlude before the night’s coda.
The evening’s final event was a performance authored by Wilson called UBU, a riff on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play, Ubu Roi. By the time Wilson emerged, heavy rain had taken down the sound system, which didn’t deter him from delivering a live address to the benefit audience, thanking them for soaking in the unexpected.