‘To have coffee in a cup like this makes the experience special,’ muses Robert Wilson. A master of drama and design, the American stage director is standing among 400 cups that Italian coffee brand Illycaffé has produced – 111 artist collaborations and counting – over the past 25 years.
Illy’s instantly recognisable red logo was painted by the late pop art pioneer James Rosenquist in 1992. The forward-thinking coffee company has also accrued an impressive art collection, so for the 57th Venice Biennale it enlisted Wilson to put its artist-designed cups centre stage.
‘I don’t think I’m very good at explaining my work,’ says a bashful Wilson, ‘but it is something you experience. When I saw this whole line of coffee cups – they are all very different! – I started thinking about the caterpillars in Alice in Wonderland, and “everything you can think of is true” and I thought, here we are.’
The sensorial exhibition – which takes its protracted title from the last line in a Mother Goose poem – is staged across seven rooms in a Venetian warehouse (restored and renovated by Renzo Piano) on Dorsoduro. The show opens with a deceptively plain display of cups. Inside, sounds of splattering rain and roaring Siberian tigers emanate through the space; in each room a different lighting and beastly conceptual scheme unfolds (think rabbits, tigers, and jaguars).
‘Many ideas, many artists, many aesthetics coming together for one single image of a cup,’ says Wilson. There, embedded in the walls are delightful configurations by a veritable Who’s Who of artists: a cobalt ensemble with a cut saucer by Daniel Buren; a double-handle design with an alien face from David Byrne; a mirrored vessel from Michelangelo Pistoletto; and a signature void by, who else, Anish Kapoor.
And then there’s Marina Abramović. ‘Marina is the Mad Hatter, so be careful!,’ quips Wilson. Her creation – a pierced cup – beckons the avant-garde. ‘When you see [the cups] all together it’s playful,’ adds Wilson, ‘It’s like arranging beads on a necklace.’
In fact, Wilson’s last spin in Venice was in 1993 when he won the Golden Lion for sculpture. The piece in question was ‘performed in Giudecca in a warehouse very similar to this. I did a “very serious and severe installation” based on Mongolian torture and the texts of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and called it Loss.’
Returning to a familiar context in an almost identical environment prompted Wilson to ‘do something completely different. Like two worlds – not heaven and hell, but they’re one world, two hands, one body, two sides of the brain. This is a counterpoint to what I did before.’
And if Loss was moody and contemplative, than this new exhibition is the opposite. It’s a brilliantly bonkers journey through Wilson’s imagination. ‘Thank you Alice, for letting me fall into the rabbit hole,’ says Wilson. A mad tea party for all.