Robert Wilson’s Vision

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 1991

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, 1991)

“Robert Wilson’s Vision” is an installation structured like a journey — a journey that moves from morning to night — from white to black — from the past to the future — from birth to death. A journey that has no beginning and no end, but all takes place in a timeless, endless present – an extraordinary glimpse into Robert Wilson‘s inner world.

“It’s a new kind of museum experience,” acknowledges Trevor Fairbrother, the MFA’s Acting Curator of Contemporary Art, who conceived and organized the show as a spectacular installation with videos, drawings, costumes, furniture and The Night Before the Day, a five-room installation that transforms the Graham Gund Gallery with light, images, and sound.

The installation begins in The Forest. You hear the sound of water dripping, and birds singing and calling. This is the overture to the sound environment that Hans Peter Kuhn designed for The Night Before the Day, with amazing sounds that define and enrich the mood of each room in the installation.  The walls of The Forest are covered with images of treebark, and hanging on one wall is a procession of photographs framed with mirrors. The photographs show worn, weathered statues from the garden of Sans Souci — the palace that Frederick the Great built in Berlin imitation of Versailles. Gods and goddesses gaze into the far distance with vacant, dreamy eyes; they set the scene, like the chorus in Greek tragedy.

At the end of a tunnel, you walk into a big white cube of a room that’s almost painfully bright. This is Room One, and in this room are 21 objects suspended in the air or just barely touching the ground — chairs, costumes, and puppets. All these objects were originally created for Wilson’s theatrical productions, but they have the feel of ritual objects — shaman masks or fetishes, heavily invested with meaning and magic. And they work, independently, as art

“Wilson imbues this kind of presence into the objects,” said Fairbrother as we walked through the show together. “You’re aware of them. They send out force waves the way a diva does when she’s hitting that high note — or Jackie Kennedy, or Marilyn. It’s star quality. That’s what these images have when the magic is working. And that endless attention to detail is necessary to make sure that the magic is working. They have this kind of incredible presence that’s very intense — a complex psychological presence, a stunning presence, a magnetic presence.”

One of the objects in Room One is Einstein Chair (from Einstein on the Beach), which Fairbrother bought for the MFA in 1985.

“It’s a person — it’s a chair — it’s a building — it’s geometry — it’s an abstract sculpture — it’s unlike anything that you’ve ever seen before. It’s tall and thin like a figure in pain or a king in absolute majesty. It’s a Gothic spire or a modernist skyscraper or an abstract image of an vector pointing upward to the sky.”

Inside Room Two is a small room with an installation called Memory of a Revolution, originally created for a museum in Germany. It contains a huge elephant foot, which contains a mannequin of an old man dressed as Napoleon, who holds in his lap a tiny stage set — the set for Cherubini‘s opera Medea, which was written in Paris and first performed there in 1797. From the center of the tiny stage, you hear a scratchy recording of Maria Callas, singing Medea in the 1950’s.

The elephant foot is an image of a gigantic plaster elephant that was commissioned by Napoleon to be built on the site of the Place de la Bastille. The elephant was built in plaster, but never bronzed, but survived — decayed and rat-infested — until 1846. Wilson learned about the elephant when he was invited to stage an artistic gala for the opening night of a new opera house that was built on the same site in 1989, so the installation is loaded with layer upon layer of significance. Like the photographs of garden statues in The Forest, it’s an eerie reminder of time’s transformation of the meaning and beauty of things.

In Room Two, you hear harpsichord music, and the distant sound of a woman singing. All the walls — painted grey — are hung with drawings made by Wilson in graphite, ink, crayon or chalk. A drawing related to Gluck’s opera Alceste shows three anxious figures in an empty, blighted landscape — a woman, reaching out; a man, turning his back; another man, watching from a tower.

In Room Three — the Einstein Room — the walls are painted black. On the far wall is an electronic blackboard with lines of light dancing and gleaming in the cosmic night. The sound here is slower and more rhythmic — celestial music, almost serene. Spotlights illuminate a few objects on floors and walls: a pair of bronze cowboy boots, a bronze arm bent like an Egyptian hieroglyph, beach chairs that look like ancient Egyptian beds, an old peeling metal paint can that looks like a lunar landscape, and a white bird — Snow Owl (from CIVIL warS).

Lines of light turn into circles, then move faster and faster in a hypnotic geometric dance. Then, suddenly, a small rocket with flashing red lights begins a slow ascent, cutting diagonally across the room, making a deafening noise. Then silence. Then it starts all over again. This is night — science — death — the vast, cold, empty nothing of eternity — the void. The effect is dazzling.

Wilson’s drawings are structured like stages — squares or long rectangles illuminated by stark white light that casts a net of grey, ambiguous shadows. The same images recur and recur in his drawings, like archetypes or recurring dreams — bleak landscapes, empty rooms, doors opening and closing, ominous shafts of light, columns, cubes, curtains, the shape of an eye, windows, words. One wall is covered with small framed drawings of the words HM and THERE — perhaps an echo of Wilson’s obsessive working method, a process of endless brooding and revision.

In another drawing, a cube is falling from the sky, suspended in mid-air. The drawing conveys a palpable sense of anguish — a silent scream of loneliness and longing, distance and pain.

“For Wilson, drawing is a private nighttime activity, which he does before and during working on the play. They’re like ghosts or echoes or prefigurations.”

One of Wilson’s video shows Sherryl Sutton in Deafman Glance — an excruciatingly slow, wordless ritual dance in which she pours a glass of milk for a boy, then stabs him in the chest. Medea, the mother who kills her child, is a recurring theme in Wilson’s work — the ultimate image of the unloved child.

During the installation of Robert Wilson’s Vision, Fairbrother showed Wilson a neoclassical statue of a pensive Medea holding a dagger in her hand, carved in white marble by William Wetmore Story in 1868, from the museum’s permanent collection. Wilson wanted the statue for his show, so now she stands at the entrance to Robert Wilson’s Vision, facing the wall. Story’s Medea is not a great statue, and seen from the front, her face looks too insipid to be frightening. But seen like this from the back, she becomes a terrifying, brooding presence — she becomes a Wilson.

“Medea at the beginning is a kind of lietmotif — it’s like the spirit of the whole show,” says Fairbrother. “It’s incredible to see the sculpture from the back. The body language is so much more abstract and visceral. She’s holding the knife, and she already knows what she’s going to do, but she’s still thinking about it. On a knife edge — that’s the mood, finally, of all of Wilson’s work. On a knife edge — that’s what makes it great.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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