The Watermill Center’s Annual Hamptons Bacchanal

The annual summer benefit and auction at Robert Wilson’s The Watermill Center is known for being a bit of a bacchanal. It’s a “who’s who” evening with over-the-top artworks, visually and conceptually lurid installations, alluring performance pieces, large-scale in situ works, and et cetera shocking uses of the private-public space of the center’s Water Mill, New York campus.

Curated by Australian artist Ivan Cheng and the Center’s in-house curator Noah Khoshbin, the 25th benefit, TIME BOMB, presents the works of nearly 100 artists from Australia, Brazil, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and multiple other countries within Europe and North America.

The internationality of the event is true to the spirit of the Center. “Like a fine diapason,” says participating artist Georgia Sagri, speaking to Wilson’s founding philosophy, “Watermill Center resonates a clear and consistent tuning.” It is a sharp and persistent ringing of diverse creativity, set apart and aside from Manhattan’s bustle, a collective of fringe figures with fringe brilliance.

Aerial view of Miles Greenberg’s performance installation for 2017’s
Fly Into the Sun benefit, by Lovis Ostenrik

This inclusive, philosophical approach to the arts could be read as antithetical to the year’s theme: the bomb, a divisive and literally dividing memento of real life. The promotional image, created for the theme by long-time Wilson collaborator Christopher Knowles, harkens to the vintage children’s game (played like “hot potato”) that was released by Milton Bradley in 1964, smack dab during the Vietnam War.

Half a century later, Wilson seems to be remarking on the scary reality that life is still a game—at least, it’s still treated like one. We are still operating as children, blithely preoccupied with items of torment; our metaphors have become real but we remain detached, affable in the face of destruction off our turf, and readily distracted from our momentary empathy when the damage is done too close to home. On to the next round of the war-game of life.

The artistry involved in the show is infamously irreverent, politically driven, and near caustic in its memorability; and yet (rather: therefore) the work is generally beautiful, overwhelmingly fascinating, and necessarily resonant.

Unique to this year, the benefit will doubly function to honor and celebrate artists composited of the past quarter century of alumni of The Watermill Center’s yearlong residency and educational programs. In addition to work from current artists-in-residence, these artworks represent some of the global best who have exhibited at or practised out of the artists’ sanctuary:

  • Wangechi Mutu, Carrie Mae Weems, Laurie Anderson, and Jenny Holzer have contributed to an ongoing, roving exhibit titled Word on the Street, in which female artists conceive of protest banners boasting concise and poetic political messaging.
  • Performer-musician Bianca Casady is presenting a performance-installation for TIME BOMB. A founding member, with her sister, of the experimental musical group CocoRosie, Casady is also a program alumnus.
  • Os Gemeos (“The Twins” in Portuguese), influential twin graffiti artists from Brazil, are preparing a large-scale (truly, truly large) site-specific mirrored mural work.
  • Christopher Knowles, a multi-media artist, prodigy, and collaborator—as well as protégé—of Wilson’s as of the age of 14, is showing a selection of paintings. The image of one piece, inspired by the Time Bomb children’s game, which he asked for and received for Christmas in 1971, makes up the event’s promotional iconography.
  • Georgia Sagri, a Greek performance and mixed-media artist, as well as a curator in her own right, will reprise her 2008 performance The Invisible Ones atop an in situ square sculpture of her design.
  • Also participating is California-based Cleon Peterson, a painter and printmaker whose heavy, sharply designed characters, inspired by the style of Greco-Roman vase artwork, kinetically depict new-age aggression in old-world forms.
  • Oliver Beer, a British alumnus of The Watermill Center, presents live art, known for creating relationship between artist and audience through subtle, unconventional mechanisms of performance.

Georgia Sagri, The Invisible OnesGeorgia Sagri, The Invisible Ones

Presented this year by Van Cleef & Arpels, TIME BOMB is hosted in tribute to Wilson’s good friend Pierre Bergé, the iconic co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent (alongside former partner YSL himself), an active businessman and cultural devotee. He was a contentious subject, with particular, sometimes incendiary and almost always boisterous social tendencies. He life and work were persistently art-centric.

With Wilson’s distinct and experimental curatorial vision, we may imagine he and Bergé reciprocally fêting one another’s professional daringness; their unique decision-making, characteristically separate from the commercially driven status quo; and their respective, and shared, creative circles. These built communities, for the both of them, have been notoriously compelling. Celebrities, politicians, artists, intellectuals, savants. It is this same ilk invited onto The Watermill Center’s sprawling ten-plus acreage of space to experience the immersive, experiential evening that is its annual auction and gala.

 

 

The Watermill Center grounds by Lovis OstenrikThe Watermill Center grounds by Lovis Ostenrik

The Watermill Center grounds by Lovis Ostenrik, featuring artworks by
Jenny Holzer and Dana Davenport for the 2017 benefit

“Time – until it is manifested within the parameters of a particular set of attributes, relations, specific conditions and point[s] of observation—it is nothing,” says Sagri. “Time is everything and nothing at the same time. Time is always, and I am now part of it.”

And we are now part of it. Time is the summer of 2018 and collectively we are a fragile, susceptible people; and yet we are strong and unified in art, grateful for the abilities to be curious, to appreciate beauty, to invest in nonconformity with security.

Performance piece by 2003_TaniaBrugueraPerformance piece by Tania Bruguera (2003)

 

If the exact identity of the annual summer benefit and auction feels elusive, it is because it is. It evades traditional description or formula. Memorably, equally as non-formulaic are the well-heeled, interestingly dressed attendees and the truly weird and brilliant curation. The event, like the whole concept of The Watermill Center, hinges on the strength of the artistry itself: Robert Wilson, the pioneering, idiosyncratic visionary, has led and grown his so-called ‘laboratory for the arts’ into one of the United States’ foremost places for artistic experimentation.

 

Performance piece by Stephen Shanabrook for 2017's Fly Into The Sun benefit, by Lovis OstenrikPerformance piece by Stephen Shanabrook for 2017’s Fly Into The Sun benefit, by Lovis Ostenrik

The Center, from its conception through its current programming and residencies, is successfully concentrated each year into this auction, fundraiser, dinner and gala: a grand exhibition of impactful, relevant, ineffably discomfiting and unforgettable art.

Artwork by Christopher Knowles

by Emily Rae Pellerin

Images courtesy The Watermill Center

TIME BOMB, The Watermill Center’s 25th Annual Summer Benefit and Auction takes place Saturday, July 28 at its Water Mill, New York campus. Tickets may be purchased on its website. Enjoy a teaser from the 2017 benefit, Fly Into the Sun, here.