There was a tinge of occult in the air as guests of the Watermill Center’s STAND Benefit walked in file through the woods, on a path strewn with pine needles, surrounded on all sides by tiki torches and lined with performance works.
For the first piece, a man peeked his head out of a large egg sculpture and whispered, cackled, and sung, “Welcome to the Watermill Center!” in a voice that my companion described as “Minion-like, but more sinister.” Statues by Liz Glynn stood dead center, parting the photo-taking crowd. The fire threw up shadows on the finely-wrought faces that emerged from otherwise crude, elemental bodies. Spooky. We passed a grave that had been carved out of the meticulous lawn; inside a man wearing a headpiece threaded with lightbulbs writhed about. As we turned up the stairs to the Watermill Center proper, the grounds opened up and revealed a party in full swing.
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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 threaded with performance works, music, and visual art exhibits created by artists-in-residence, as well as those at-large. Behind the event — and the entire institution, in fact — is Robert Wilson, the Center’s founder and artistic director.
Wilson has had a long and impressive career as an experimental theater director. He is best known for the 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 is evident in the Center, which hosts his large collection. A blend of folk art, furniture design, a theater production archive and visual works by the likes of Canadian-American abstract painter Agnes Martin and American sculpture artist Richard Serra, the collection is singular, reflecting a man of many preoccupations.
The Center also hosts artists, writers, and academics to live, work, and access the collection as a part of the institution’s highly acclaimed artist residency program.
This past weekend’s party marked the 30th anniversary of the STAND Benefit and, accordingly, Wilson crowned the night with an exhibition of great personal importance: a presentation of Christopher Knowles work.
“It’s been a dream of mine to show his work like this,” Wilson, 80, told ARTnews, as he perched on a chair that had been set up for him where he could view the comings and goings of the party guests. Wilson has been both a patron and collaborator of Knowles since the artist was a child. Wilson weaved Knowles’ poetry through Einstein on the Beach and even cast him in the production as a teenager.
“I found him in an institution for the brain-damaged,” Wilson said, looking out into the distance. “He’s a genius, and I thought, Why should he be ‘corrected’? He came to live with me.”
Knowles is thought to have suffered some kind of brain damage at birth and is considered autistic. Wilson first learned about him when a family friend passed on an audio work of his to Wilson called Emily Likes the TV (ca. 1970). The looping track — which sparked the lifelong relationship between Wilson and Knowles — filled the exhibition hall inside, adorned with Knowles’ visual works made with long reams of paper and a typewriter. Emily Likes the TV thrummed at a hypnotic beat, “Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, because she watches the TV, because she likes it.”
At the ground level, the explosively colorful, childlike paintings of Robert Nava stood in an interesting contrast to Knowles’ repetitious, meticulous work. In attendance at this weekend’s benefit was Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery, which represents 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 bore a similar trance-like effect. In the far woods, where the last of the evening light slanted through a ring of trees, a musician strummed an electric guitar. Across the path was Korean choreographer Taeyi Lim, performing a work called Leave that involved inspecting and interacting with a cloth ball and chain attached to her ankle. Deeper in the wood, a woman played a chimeric instrument, something between a trumpet and what looked like a Chinese erhu, a two-string violin-like instrument. Down by the green lawn, where people could sip their rosé and pick at hors d’oeuvre and seafood stew, was a giant ball of fluorescent green wool. Nini Dongnier, a choreographer who works between New York, Beijing, and Vancouver, pushed and pulled at it, sometimes colliding with sitting guests in a kind of slow motion train wreck that usually resulted with a lot of photo taking and quick grabs to save upended drinks.
The night of gentle whimsy was interrupted by the benefit’s last performance, whose promise of climax was quickly punctured. Japanese performance artist and artist-in-residence Tsubasa Kato’s monumental work Manhattan Go. The large wooden sculpture, which measured perhaps 20 feet in height, had the look of a boat tucked snug in scaffolding. At both ends, many ropes. The guests of the evening were to band together to pull at the ropes, turning Kato’s sculpture from its horizontal position to a vertical stance. Men in loafers and white pants, women who had not worn heels, quickly gathered up the ropes which ended in grips from which to hold them.
At the end of a ten-second countdown, the guests heaved, the sculpture did not so much as groan. The performers, no longer mere guests, kept leaning, but did not organize themselves with more countdowns, or a chant of heave-ho. Kato ran around with his bullhorn, and guests gathered at the other end of the sculpture with the command to push, and when the time came, lift. Raymond Bulman, director of The Hole gallery, was seen using his prodigious height to get the thing off the ground.
Miraculously, it began to lift, it enormous weight hoisted into the air. It teetered, for the smallest of moments, toward the crowd that had strained so much to pull it toward them.
Alas, no massacre occurred.