The Parrish Art Museum MidSummer Party in the Hamptons last weekend had a decidedly marina-heavy theme. Part of the celebration was “Radical Seafaring,” a group show of works all related to the water in one way or another.
“Ahoy, mateys!” Terrie Sultan, the director of the Parrish, told the crowd at the gala, which included East End artists such as Eric Fischl and Keith Sonnier, as well as the actress Emily Mortimer. “It’s radical seafaring time!”
The exhibition’s claim was that “the increasing number of works created on the water by contemporary artists in the last decade is approaching the critical mass of a movement like Land Art, only at sea.” To that end, the show features at least the lingering presence of Land Art pioneer Robert Smithson, whose spirit appears in the show via footage of Study for Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island, which was realized in 2005 during a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney. (Plans were initially conceived by Smithson in 1970, three years before his death.)
“I began to see connections between this art, which we’re calling offshore art, and movements from the 1960s Land Art and conceptional performance art,” Andrea Grover, who curated the show, told me during the cocktail hour. Grover, who is the Century Arts Foundation Curator of Special Projects at the Parrish, grew up with a famous boating father who once traveled from Nova Scotia to Portugal in a vessel of his own design. Also, she’s the direct descendant of Peregrine White, who was born during the Mayflower voyage.
“The works are very tied to Land Art in that they’re in nature, they’re process oriented, temporary, but it’s on the water,” Grover went on.
Other objects in the show include the diary that Chris Burden kept during his performance B.C. Mexico, which consisted of a kayak trip from Baja California to a beach on the Sea of Cortez, where he lived for 11 days with almost no water or food; the model for Buckminster Fuller’s plan for the Baltimore Inner Harbor, which was eventually rejected; and an invitation to a Bas Jan Ader exhibition in Amsterdam that was to happen in 1975, but never did. Ader was presumed dead after embarking on a performance he dubbed In Search of the Miraculous—a solo boat mission across the Atlantic Ocean—and never seen again.
There’s also a recreation of Hickory, the gigantic boat that the artist Swoon unleashed into the Venice waterway during the Biennale in 2009, which must have seemed kind of small next to the megayachts lining the Lido, but was pretty big here, squished into one of the galleries. And, lest the Parrish staff be seen as landlubbers, they have also installed an actual floating boat on actual wet water: Mary Mattingly’s WetLand, a houseboat tricked out with solar panels to increase sustainability, and docked in nearby Sag Harbor.
“You can say, of course, that water has been a topic out here ever since the Native Americans were here,” Sultan told me. “You have the whaling industry and then the shipping industry. The light inspired a lot of artists out here. But this [show] is more about coming up with a new way of thinking about conceptual art and exploration and concerns about humanity’s incursion upon nature.”
As cocktails segued into dinner, everyone took their seats and Sultan introduced the speaker who would honor Barbara Slifka, the former Harper’s Bazaar editor turned philanthropist who sits on the Parrish’s board. The speaker turned out to be Robert Wilson, the experimental theater pioneer and founder of the nearby Watermill Center founder.
Wilson went up to the lectern before hundreds of Hamptons socialites and art patrons and waited for absolute silence. He ended up waiting there for quite some time, and the people at my table started asking what this was all about, who this person was. I told them, and one seat mate took my pen and wrote ROBERT WILSON on her menu.
After a minute or so of silence Wilson began his speech, which he performed as a sort of rap.
“For. Beeeeeeeeeee! For. Essssssssss. For. Beeeeeee. For Esssssssss. Fah-ur. Bah-ARR-bur-ah. Fo-errrrrrr. Barbara! Slifka!”
Syllable by syllable, Wilson oscillated the tone of his voice from the highest register to the lowest. He slowed down and sped up liberally, and occasionally interjected with what seemed like animal noises, usually something like: “rrrrrrrrrr-RUFF. RUFF-RUFRUF-RUFF.”
“Today and all days we honor her!” Wilson went on. “For some reason she supports the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons—Ruff! Ruffruff! grrrrrrr-RUFFFFFF!”
The speech went on with more falsetto, ably delivering a flow that proved he could at least hold his own as a rapper, if that’s something Robert Wilson ever wanted to do. At the end, after a few stabs of “Bee! Bee! Bee-bee! Beeeeeeeeeee,” Wilson said, plainly, “And for John Cage who said…”
And then there was another minute of silence, which would have been a fine ending, but Wilson instead wrapped up his speech by saying, “I have nothing to say, and that is poetry. Bee. Bob.”