There was a tinge of the 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 sang, “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 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. As we turned up the stairs to the Watermill Center proper, the grounds opened up and revealed a party in full swing.
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, create, and work with the collection as 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 work by Christopher Knowles.
“It’s been a dream of mine to show his work like this,” Wilson, 80, told ARTnews, as he perched on a chair from which he could view the comings and goings of the party guests. Wilson has been both a patron and a collaborator of Knowles since the artist was a child. Wilson weaved Knowles’s 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 gave him an audio work 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’s visual works encompassing long reams of paper and a typewriter. Emily Likes the TV thrummed with a hypnotic beat, “Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, because she watches the TV, because she likes it.”
At ground level, Robert Nava’s explosively colorful, childlike paintings provided interesting contrast to Knowles’s repetitive meticulous work. In attendance at this weekend’s benefit was Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery, which represents Nava, and Glimcher’s wife, Fairfax Dorn, cofounder of Ballroom Marfa.
Emily Likes the TV set the tone for the rest of the evening’s offerings, which had a similar trancelike 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 sipped rosé and picked at hors d’oeuvres and seafood stew, NiNi Dongnier, a choreographer who works between New York, Beijing, and Vancouver, pushed and pulled at a giant ball of fluorescent green wool, sometimes colliding with sitting guests in a kind of slow-motion train wreck that usually ended in a lot of shutter clicks and quick grabs to save upended drinks.
The benefit’s final performance broke the night’s atmosphere of gentle whimsy with an unexpected climax. Japanese performance artist and artist-in-residence Tsubasa Kato presented a monumental work titled Manhattan Go. The wooden sculpture measuring some 20 feet in height had the look of a boat tucked snugly in scaffolding, sporting many ropes at both ends. Guests were meant to cooperate in pulling the ropes to turn the sculpture from a horizontal to a vertical position. Men in loafers and white pants, and women who had not worn heels, quickly took up the ropes, using the attached grips.
Following a ten-second countdown, the partygoers heaved, and the sculpture held fast. The guests, now performers, continued mightily to pull individually but without group coordination. Kato ran around with a bullhorn, urging guests to gather at the other end of the sculpture with the command to push, and ultimately, to lift. Raymond Bulman, director of The Hole gallery, used his prodigious height to get the thing off the ground.
At last, it miraculously began to lift, its enormous weight rising into the air. It teetered, for the smallest of moments, toward the crowd that had strained so much to pull it toward them.
Happily, no massacre ensued.