According to The New York Times, Kanye West was set to give his first live performance in nearly a year at last Saturday’s Watermill Center Benefit at the nonprofit’s headquarters near Southampton. West would appear on a stage designed by Watermill’s founder, the avant-garde theater legend Robert Wilson. People were pretty excited; the event soon became the highest-attended gala in Watermill’s 23-year history, and Alex Soros—heir to the $24.9 billion Soros fortune—bought 70 tickets at $2,500 a pop. But a few days before, a friend texted me a screenshot of an email from Gabe Tesoriero, an executive at Def Jam and West’s close confidant. The email read, in full, “I’m not sure it’s happening.”
Indeed, a day before the benefit, Watermill reps said the performance was pushed back until 2017—“Robert Wilson and Kanye West have made an artistic decision to postpone their collaboration.”
“You know, Kanye West has been here for a few days, and we’ve been developing a new piece, and we were hoping to perform it tonight, but it’s so elaborate,” Wilson said as he addressed the dinner guests in his typically loopy style, his pitch oscillating. “He called me two days ago, and he said, ‘Tell everyone we’re gonna do it next year.’ So come back next year—and get your tickets now.”
The Watermill Center is accustomed to such 11th-hour disruptions. People at the party said that just before the crowds entered, Wilson was making tweaks to the works on display across the foundation’s expansive grounds, many to As We Lay Dying, the sprawling series of videos, performances, pranks, and installations by the New York-based collective Bruce High Quality Foundation. Since their inception, BHQF have maintained an aura of semi-anonymity. (During the cocktail hour, a reporter for a fashion publication was introduced to someone who was, unbeknownst to her, a founding member. When the reporter wondered aloud about Bruce High Quality Foundation, the member responded, “I think I’ve heard of them, they might be around.”) Maps of the ground still said KANYE WEST PERFORMANCE over a large section behind the dinner area.
Still, the entire event, which was dubbed FADA: House of Madness, was the spectacle that everyone comes out east to see: sound installations featuring the haunting voice of ANOHNI (aka Antony Hegarty), video works by Nikita Shokhov featuring androgynous young people in surf-wear or in the nude gallivanting around a bonfire, a BHQF installation featuring models sitting in a boat filled with ice water, with the model rowing like mad despite the vessel’s mooring near the silent auction; a work by Pussy Riot that proclaimed MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN in red spray paint; a stone tank full of water designed by the artist John Margaritis in which a swimmer had to fight against drowning despite weights attached to his feet; and what appeared to be the skin of a dead coyote in a room full of hay, with grasshoppers darting onto the carcass and “Roxanne” by The Police blasting on the speakers.
Wilson is the ringleader of this annual circus, and with Kanye a no-show, the biggest celebrity there. I’ve heard from multiple former Watermill staffers and other associates that he’s getting ready to step down from the directorship, which he’s held since he founded the nonprofit in 1992. The plan would be for him to take a step back after the completion of his “Library of Inspiration,” a so-called “living library” that will house Wilson’s set materials, archives, art collection, and other treasures. (There are others who insist he will stay in charge until his last breath.)
Still, the much-younger Hamptons-dwellers couldn’t really keep up with Bob. After Simon de Pury ably offloaded works during the charity auction portion of the evening, including a commissioned Nan Goldin portrait that went for $140,000, en route to a $1 million haul courtesy bidding from the likes of novelist Jay McInerney and rapper Ja Rule, confetti burst from the ceiling. A group of peppy models surrounded Wilson, snapping selfies, as he made his way up to the after party, and then stopped briefly to chat when something strange and unmistakably Bob-like happened to me: When we shook hands, he quickly tightened his grip, and then squeezed my hand progressively harder through our entire conversation, with his dreamy fragmentary statements betraying no recognition of the menacing shake.
“We’re reflecting on what’s going on right now, then we try to balance that with something that’s otherworldly,” he said, his grip getting tighter. “We’re going through a hellish time, so I like very much when I hear the harp, and a little girl laughing. It’s those two worlds that have to exist together. Pussy Riot really has an attack on America, but then you have the innocence of a girl laughing and a 14-year-old girl playing a harp…”—his grip getting tighter—“…hmm, the Watermill Center, I always like the energy of a watermill, it circulates, it turns, we’re center and, um, it’s really important that we have the political force of Pussy Riot, and Bruce High Quality Foundation, questioning the values of America, and then you have a child, laughing and playing a harp…”—his grip getting tighter—“…you put one thing against another, and not be too soft.”