Robert Wilson: The Art My Generation Produced Won’t Be Seen In 50 Years
Jan. 15, 2016
Lady Gaga is “a genius” declares avant-garde American theatre artist Robert Wilson.
Wilson, speaking by phone from Austria during his directing of Verdi’s La Traviata at the State Theatre of Linz, is assessing the greats of performance art and experimental theatre. He says Gaga’s depth of feeling was clear as she sat or stood hours at a time while he shot a series of video portraits in London two years ago.
Costumed and made up, Gaga struck poses drawn from paintings, such as Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassic The Death of Marat and Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière for Wilson’s Living Rooms series, exhibited at the Louvre in Paris in November 2013.
“The concentration, the power she has, it’s total. Would Meryl Streep do that? Would Nicole Kidman? Can Madonna? I don’t know,” Wilson says.
Later that year, at 4am in a recording studio, he had Gaga repeat text from Marquis de Sade like a mantra: Coitus, Christ, curses, ejaculation, always the same …
“This kid speaks text like a machine gun,” Wilson recalls. “The articulation, it was amazing. She should do Medea.”
The Texas-born Wilson, 74, has over the past half century teamed with many high-profile collaborators, including Tilda Swinton, Jim Jarmusch, Philip Glass, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the late German dramatist Heiner Müller.
Wilson will travel to Australia in January to see Jette Steckel’s 2010 Hamburg production of his adaptation of German dramatist Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck for the first time, at Sydney festival, which Wilson premiered in Copenhagen in 2000, with music by Tom Waits and Waits’s partner, Kathleen Brennan. He will also make a keynote speech on the topic of art festivals at Sydney’s Opera House.
Woyzeck is the story of a soldier who submits to a doctor’s experiments, originally written by Büchner in 1836-37. Wilson’s version updates the story to an abstract 21st century musical. He hasn’t seen Steckel’s new version – but even if he had, it’s not in Wilson’s nature to say what a work is meant to be about.
Wilson has long been influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s ideas of formalism and distance; an epic theatre where all elements – lights, movement, text, staging – are equally important.
He eschews “the lie” of naturalism on stage and sees artificiality as “more honest”. Hence he was a perfect fit with Lady Gaga, herself a master of avant-garde showmanship.
A few days after Wilson first met Gaga (aka Stefani Germanotta) in 2013, he says she called him for advice for her MTV awards opening number. “She said, ‘Tell me something about theatre’. I said, ‘Well, you know, Gaga, think of the first second, and the last’. ‘OK, thank you, that’s all I need to know’.
“She called again two weeks later. ‘Bob, can you tell me something else about theatre?’ I said, ‘The Broadway formula is you start strong and end big’.”
But security wouldn’t permit Gaga’s plan to be hoisted into the air above the audience with four drones in her dress. “I said, ‘Gaga. You’ve spent a million and a half dollars on this; let’s fight for it.’ She said, ‘No, no, we’ll do it later, forget it.’
“So instead, she starts with a close up, with a big collar. She looks like a nun. And they pull back, and she’s in a white robe. And in three-and-a-half minutes, she changes everything five times, clothes, hair … At the end, she’s totally nude, except for clamshells on her tits and her private parts.
“I said, ‘Wow, Gaga, you learn fast. You started strong, you ended big! You got the first second, and the last!’ She said, ‘Well, thank you very much’.”
In 1968, Wilson started the performance art group the Byrd Hoffman School of Birds in New York, named for the dance instructor who helped him overcome a childhood stutter, and involved street people and factory workers.
Later, he would work with hyperactive and brain-damaged children in creating art. “Any great work has to relate to the guy on the street,” he says.
Marlene Dietrich, whom Wilson also considers a performance artist, was an early influence. He recalls he was “perhaps 27” when he took the German-born actor and singer to dinner. She taught him the value of slow performing: in her case, slow and sexy singing. “I said, ‘Miss Dietrich, may I invite you for dinner?’ She said, ‘With pleasure’.
“Well, I was terrified. A man came to the table and said, ‘Miss Dietrich, you’re so cold when you perform’. And she said,” – Wilson drops his tone – “‘You didn’t listen to my voice […] The difficulty is to place the voice with the face.’ It is true: she was icy cold with her movement, but the voice could be very hot and sexy. And that was her power.”
Wilson weighs up whose art will still be staged late in the 21st century. Müller will still be produced 50 years or more hence, he says, because his philosophical approach stands the test of time. But the performance art of Serbian-born, New York-based Marina Abramović will be “a footnote”, he says.
In 2010 he took actor Sharon Stone to New York’s Museum of Modern Art to sit for 10 minutes opposite Abramović, who clocked 700 hours sitting silently under bright lights, as one by one visitors took their turn in an opposite chair. “Sharon started crying,” says Wilson. “She had a deep, emotional experience, because of Marina’s depth of emotion.”
Wilson recalls his own New York art “happenings” of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, including plays he devised that lasted for a day or more. “I think much of what my generation produced won’t be seen 50 years from now. It wasn’t meant to be. I don’t think Marina’s work will last. No, no way.
“She’ll have a place in history for having done something. She disagrees, but I don’t think the work is meant to be reproduced. She’ll have an influence.”
So to Wilson’s take on Woyczek. Wilson says it is a masterpiece of “classical architecture”; its greatness as indestructible as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Müller’s 1977 postmodernist take, Hamletmachine, which he says will live beyond the politics of its Hungarian revolution setting.
Did the fact Büchner died at 23, in 1837, leaving only fragments of Woyzeck, give Wilson artistic freedom? “It’s very complicated, because you can’t rewrite a master. But you have to be careful not to become the slave.”
Wilson laments that theatre today tries to constantly sell, even enforce, direct messages. Writers should not pronounce what they think their play is about, because such pronouncements discourage multiple interpretations.
“It is OK to get lost! You don’t have to understand every second. I think that’s the problem. Let the audience get lost. It’s OK.”
- Woyzeck is playing at Carriageworks 7-12 January as part of Sydney festival. Wilson’s keynote speech Arts Festivals: The Long and Winding Road at the Sydney Opera House will take place on 6 January
Source: The Guardian