As a visual artist, playwright and director, among many other titles, Robert Wilson is best known for his recalculations of some of art’s dustier forms, among them opera, theater and, most recently, portraiture. (Brad Pitt and Isabelle Huppert are some recent subjects of his high definition video art “still lifes.”) In 1992, Wilson re-invented the center, possibly the most staid of art instittutions, by founding the Watermill Center in Southampton, devoted to providing international artists with a home to create works that are freed from the confines of studio and (to an extent) finance. Hence the Watermill’s sixteenth annual Summer Benefit, held this Saturday at the Center, is a combination auction, performance art event, exhibition and charity gala.
The center’s summer program offers residencies to between four and six international artists to create site-specific installations, each of which get their first public viewing at the gala benefit. 2009 artist-in-residence Sue de Beer created a work, “Ring of Trees,” that uses a ritualistic circle of lighted branches to reinterpret the “magic circles” that served as meeting places in Puritan colonies. This summer’s auction, presided over by Simon de Pury, also features work from de Beer, along with pieces by artists including Mika Rottenberg, Elizabeth Peyton, and Barnaby Furnas, among many others. A work by the late artist Dash Snow was scheduled for auction, but has since been pulledm citing sensitivity for the artist’s family.
Each year, the benefit is defined by a theme that encapsulates the feeling of the works presented by the artists-in-residence. Last year’s theme, according to Watermill’s Creative Director Jörn Weisbrodt, “was derived from a large indoor installation by artist Jonathan Meese, titled ‘Marlene Dietrich in Dr. No’s Ludovico Clinic.'” The installation featured Meese at his most brilliantly maniacal, and provided the general mood for the summer’s gala: “decadent glamour from an era that we had all heard about, but not experienced.”
So pushing the boundaries of debauchery is hardly a problem at Watermill. But the center does have its limits. “One year we had a car sponsor, and they provided us with a nice luxury car to display on the property during the benefit,” recalls Weisbrodt. “We wound up having to pull a couple out of the car-they were making out in it. Good thing they had paid for full-price tickets.” For those who choose to remain attired, this year’s theme—”Inferno”—extends all the way to the gala’s dress code, which is “flaming.” “Hopefully, the audience will all be dressed up as visitors to hell,” says Weisbrodt. And if Hell is the Hamptons, this particular corner of it is bound to be far more enjoyable than most.