Wilson’s World

Celebrating Robert Wilson's birthday with essays, interviews, a frog, and a sharkshin shoe

Robert Wilson’s rendition of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, performed in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 2009, with costumes by Viktor & Rolf.


On the occasion of Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday, last October, the multitalented, often underappreciated, largely misunderstood artist generated a flurry of activity. His Threepenny Opera was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that same month, and his hyperreal video portrait of dancer Roberto Bolle debuted at New York’s Center548 last winter. There was a show at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York devoted to Wilson’s performance pieces at his loft between 1967 and 1975, and a new film about the artist by Sacha Goldman, Rememberemember. Wilson’s Waco-Watermill- World, recently premiered at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Meanwhile, helping to sum up the complicated man is Robert Wilson from Within, a profusely illustrated book edited by literary scholar Margery Arent Safir. Her quirky compilation is made up of some 25 contributions in the form of essays, interviews, and creative exercises. Among the writers are such familiar cultural dignitaries as Marina Abramovic, Philip Glass, Rufus Wainwright, and John Rockwell, as well as Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian and actress Isabelle Huppert.

In the book, Dutch fashion team Viktor & Rolf presents a tiny Wilsonian allegory about the subtle communication between an introverted frog and some water lilies that conspire to dance for him, “swaying their stems to a sudden gust of wind” and shivering “rhythmically to the sound of a sudden rain shower.” Watching this performance, “the frog smiled. How could they have guessed his thoughts?”

Wilson’s way of looking is “a state of perception that passes through the skin as well as through the ears, where the inexpressible rules, where coldness mingles naturally with voluptuous pleasure,” writes French actor and director Charles Chemin. “Things don’t have to have strict meanings; people don’t need definitions.”

As Wilson explains here, “The reason I work as an artist is to ask questions, that is, to say, ‘What is it?’ and not to say what something is, for if we know what it is that we’re doing, there’s no reason to do it.”

Altogether, a rounded portrait emerges, ending with a chapter in which Safir asks Wilson to choose objects that have personal importance for him and to comment on them. These include Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1977 portrait of choreographer Lucinda Childs (she is “at once icy cold and hot”), a terra-cotta statue of a Han dancer, a photo of poet and dance critic Edwin Denby (who “actually saw what was onstage, and not what was in his mind”), and a sharkskin shoe once owned by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Safir directs the Arts Arena at the American University of Paris, which published the book. It’s a place that promotes activities across the cultural landscape, and Wilson is the quintessential cross-culturist. Safir introduces the book via Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s avant-garde novel Hopscotch, equating the spirit and characters of the story with Wilson. Wilson, she says, is “not intellectual; he’s intuitive.” He is, as one character in Hopscotch describes another, “a Vieira da Silva,” referring to the Portuguese painter of unfathomable mazelike abstractions, and “not a Mondrian,” she adds.

What Safir believes Robert Wilson from Within brings out is “the violence beneath the exquisite beauty” in Wilson’s work, as well as “his playfulness and absurdity, his perversity and humor—there’s a rabbit, a panther,” she says. “It’s like vaudeville.”

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