Robert Wilson is not known for his words. His early theatrical masterpiece “Einstein on the Beach,” created with Philip Glass, is five hours long and has almost no real dialogue. His first major theater works, in the 1960s and ’70s, were completely silent.
Last week, he gave a sold-out talk with Mia director Kaywin Feldman and curator Liu Yang before opening weekend of “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” a show that aims to reinvent the museum exhibition through light, sound, smell, and theatrical design. The venerable theater director and visual artist did not disappoint, prefacing his comments with a minute of silence. Then another. And another.
Finally, he looked up from the podium. “Good evening,” he said, and didn’t stop talking and drawing—on an overhead projector—for the better part of an hour. (“I can’t talk without drawing,” he has said. “It’s a way of speaking for me.”)
Here, five insightful gems from the man behind the show, and what they say about him.
1. He’s not going to tell you what anything means. That’s your job, and your pleasure.
“The reason I work is to ask questions, to ask what is it, not to say what it is. The most important thing for me is what you experience. I saw the sunrise this morning, for example, and it was so extraordinary. I can’t tell you what it meant.”
2. He believes in juxtaposition—even if the juxtaposition doesn’t appear to make sense.
“The best class I had in school was taught … by a woman who worked with counterpoint. She had a screen projector and these slides would project rapidly behind her while she talked. Her lectures had nothing to do with what we were seeing. But after six months, after a year, after five years you finally began to know things and you didn’t know how you knew them.”
3. The arts take themselves too seriously.
“So often I go to a museum or the theater and I feel like I’m in high school, like I’m being lectured. But think about performing King Lear—if you’re performing the death of King Lear you still have to laugh a little. Because that’s what makes a great tragedy. We need the lightness to make the dark. It’s okay to laugh. If we can’t laugh then we shouldn’t make a work.”
4. For a guy who once made a day-long silent play, he has little love for the avant-garde.
“People thought ‘Einstein’ was avant-garde but it wasn’t. It was very classical. … We must maintain a balance of interests, protecting the art of our time with the art of the past. And the art of, say, France, with the art of all nations. … It’s important that we live with art and culture. If we lose our culture, we lose our memory.”
5. He’s a big fan of Lady Gaga.
“About five years ago, I was in my office in New York and the office said, ‘Lady Gaga is calling you.’ I thought it was a joke. She said, ‘Hi Bob, it’s Gaga.’ I said, ‘Hi Gaga.’ She comes to my very small apartment with about 12 bodyguards and we decided we would do something together, so just before she leaves we exchange cell phone numbers. And a couple weeks later she called and said, ‘Hi Bob, Gaga. Can you tell me something about theater?’ I said the most important thing is the first second and the last, and if you get the last second right [the audience] might forgive you for everything that went on before.’ Some time later, she calls again: ‘Tell me something else about theater.’ I said ‘start strong and end big.’ So she does this opening number for the MTV Awards and it starts with this close-up where she looks like a nun, and in three-and-a-half minutes she goes through five costume changes and finally she’s wearing nothing but some clamshells on her [breasts]. And she calls me up and says, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘You learn fast.'”