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The Watermill Center

ROBERT WILSON’S WATERWORLD
by James Croak
 
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On Saturday night, July 30, 2011, the Watermill Center in the Hamptons threw its annual fundraiser to support its laboratory of international performance art. It's a high-season Hamptons event where the most compensated gather in fine plumage to pass coinage to the least compensated, which would be performance artists from the contemporary art world.

This year the annual event overlapped with Watermill Center founder Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday, and the center pulled out all the stops. Guests and performances sprawled over six acres, which was fortunate, since 1,100 people attended, paying $500 a ticket for drinks and another $500 if they stayed for dinner. Between the gate and the art auction, a respectable $1,500,000 was raised.  

Spread throughout the acreage were 25 installations and performances on the theme of “Voluptuous Panic,” a nutty but somehow timely theme, produced by artists selected for a summer residency. Present were works by a mixed bag of artists from around the world, ranging from Ryan McNamara and Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean (both U.S.) to Nazanin Fakoor (Iran), Carrie McGrath (Australia) and Santiago Taccetti (Argentina).

Arriving guests passed through a smoky receiving line of chrome-masked garçons serving summery drinks while a giant-breasted woman frolicked on the sidelines, a piece entitled Milk the Cow by the team of fashion designer Charlie Le Mindu and the Athens-based art-and-fashion collective Atopos. It was a harbinger of the bad-boy art inside.

In the interior plaza, Peter Coffin had affixed pins to the rollers of a full-sized steamroller and a steel comb to its frame, turning this road machine into a giant music box. His Steamroller Music Project, as it was titled, circled slowly, playing a tune while the pins on its roller embossed a pattern onto the sand, leaving the impression of a player-piano roll in its wake.

This contraption would have sufficed, but Le Mindu and Atopos staged another oddity in the center of the steamroller’s circle. Dubbed Sodomise USA, it featured an ever-increasing number of bare-assed girls pouring oil and glitter on each other.

Le Mindu and Atopos made two other works on site. One was a tableau in which three dominatrix, all apparently preggers, passed time on swings suspended from overhead trees (OK, that made me laugh), and the second, Beware the Woman, placed a girl in a doghouse and threw bones to her. This kind of strikingly misogynistic work may be a staple on the international fashion circuit but rarely does it slip into the contemporary art world.

The Australian artist Katya Grohovsky produced a light-hearted piece called Untitled Heroics in which two women on separate stages hurled stuffed animals at each other, a romper room brawl that worked well in the party atmosphere. Something darker was provided by the Chilean artist Alejandro Moreno Jashés, who for his work Exit-Exist-Exito trotted on a treadmill with a light sign above that cleverly toggled between “Exit” and “Exist,” an update of a sort on the No Exit angst of Jean-Paul Sartre.

That gravitas was topped a few paces away, where Ryan McNamara had buried himself and a colleague up to their necks in a mulch field, wired so that they could speak back and forth via microphones. Titled II, it was an eerie and successful piece, bringing to mind filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s 1937 Que viva México, with its harrowing scene of men buried to their necks and stomped by horses.

A rewarding outlier further into the woods was Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean’s poetry slam. I sat long and listened to his words hit with the sustained force of a young James Earl Jones delivering King Lear. Perhaps that's a stretch, but my impression is that Bean is seriously under-employed and a casting agent wanting a coup might look him up.

Bob Wilson moved through the goings on looking handsome, tanned and regal, not a strained artist as one might guess, but more like a golf pro wandering the greens, greeting his public and pausing for pictures here and there. They say 70 is the new 60, but looking at him suggests it should be the new 50.

“Voluptuous Panic” was the success it promised to be and the Watermill Center tills have been replenished for another 12 months of year-round performance incubation. The benefit performances are being restaged, free and open to the public, on Aug. 14, 2011, 3-6 pm at the Watermill Center in Watermill, N.Y.


JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.