Robert Wilson Puts on a Show

Ruth La Ferla, The New York Times, 3 November 2017, Visit external site
At the Robert Wilson installation for Van Cleef & Arpels

Robert Wilson is a slow-talking man. But he picked up speed the other day as he described an early encounter with Lady Gaga. As Mr. Wilson told it, some years ago the star cold called him. Not especially cowed by his lofty stature as artist and director, she opened with: “Hi, Bob. Gaga. Can you tell me something about theater?”

Mr. Wilson kept his brief to her simple. “‘You know the Broadway formula is that you start strong and end big,’” he said. Her response, as he recalled: “‘Thank you, Bob. That’s all I needed to know.’”

After several such talks, Mr. Wilson agreed to oversee her 2013 appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards. “In three minutes and 20 seconds she changed her clothes seven times,” he said. “She started with a cowl, like a nun. In the last four or five seconds, she had on nothing but clamshells on her private parts.”

“When it was over, she asked me, ‘Bob, how did I do?’” he said, interrupting himself with a riotous whoop before going on. “‘You learn fast,’ I told her. ‘You started strong and ended big.’”

But we had veered off course. We were at the Cedar Lake performance space in the Chelsea section of Manhattan to talk about Mr. Wilson’s Noah’s Ark installation for Van Cleef & Arpels. From Nov. 3 to 19, visitors will be treated to a display of the jeweler’s menagerie of exotic animals, designed as brooches and showcased in a series of recessed glass enclosures cresting and dipping rhythmically along the walls.

For the project, Mr. Wilson, 76, who will be honored on Nov. 6 at the New York Public Library Lions gala, tapped his enduring fascination with a cast of outsize characters. Over the years that pantheon has included Sigmund Freud, Queen Victoria, Joseph Stalin and Albert Einstein, the ostensible hero of “Einstein on the Beach,” the visual and musical spectacle he created with Philip Glass, which shot him to fame in the mid-1970s.

To his mind such legends are the lifeblood of the theater. “They are the gods of our time,” he said. “People come to the theater sharing a common knowledge about who and what they are. In this instance, we all come with a story in our heads about Noah’s Ark.”

At Cedar Lake that story translates into an alternately soothing and unsettling multisensory experience. On first entering the eerily lighted space, guests are jolted by thunderclaps and flashing lights; inside, they are lulled by projected ocean waves lapping the perimeter, the meditative strains of “Spiegel im Spiegel” (written by Arvo Part), drawing them toward the black jewelry cases.

Miniaturized stage sets, they are populated with pairs of lapis and turquoise parrots, intertwining jeweled zebras, diamond-and-sapphire monkeys and cocooning penguins with black onyx and cabochon gems, all similar in scale.

Working with Nicolas Bos, the Van Cleef chief executive, who commissioned the project, Mr. Wilson envisioned the installation as an actual ark. He was quick to discard the idea, though, preferring to use light and space to simulate the experience of a ship at sea. “I’ve always worked with light first,” he said. “Without light there is no space.”

Suspended from the ceiling is a whalebone ark. Less than a foot long, it is a model of a vessel in Mr. Wilson’s private collection of tribal artifacts. Visitors are meant to experience the ship, he said, “as this tiny speck in a vast ocean.”

At regular intervals, darkness descends on the space. “The only things lit are the jewels,” Mr. Wilson said. “They’re like stars. They become like a navigational map of the room.”





The artist and director Robert Wilson.Credit...Hilary Swift/The New York Times