Coal Miner’s Coughs and Cocoons of Cotton Candy: A Night at the Watermill Center Benefit
On Saturday evening at the Watermill Center, a dreamy home for performance art in the midst of lulling Hamptons luxury on Long Island, New York, Vesna Mačković—a Croatian artist participating in the center’s intensive summer residency program—was seething and heaving beneath a yellow coal miner’s helmet in a pair of bright red overalls. The setting was a spartan concrete box, with no roof or much to note structurally aside from some folding chairs arranged for the occasion. Robert Wilson, Watermill’s mastermind and no stranger to arresting presences, sat rapt in the front row, watching with a kind of attention that makes whatever might be happening in front of him seem like the only thing happening in the world.
It wasn’t. There was, to begin with, a carnival of excess and extravagance just outside, with torches burning and top-shelf cocktails and security with machine guns. But inside the concrete bunker, all eyes were on Mačković as she leered out at her audience and slowly prowled around, in a sort of disquieting ballet. Her breathing was labored and punctuated by coughs, all amplified by microphones. Her steps when she walked—with feet in boots dragged to amplify the noise—sounded like scratchy poundings of a death knell. At one point, after much protracted ambling, she had made her way to the back wall and, with a hammer she carried along, began smashing bits of it from the surface.
It was confounding, eerie, and deeply affecting—and not the kind of art to be expected at a gala where tickets for the early part of the evening start at $650 and seats for the dinner after go for $1,500–$5,000. One thing that can be more dependably expected: fancy finger food. (In this case, highlights included a delectable hors d’oeuvre of grilled bread with ricotta and nectarine.) And then there was the glitzy crowd of the kind that tends to make Watermill’s annual benefit one of the premier events of the Hamptons summer season.
But even more dependable than all that, despite (or because of) its inverse relationship to reason and rationality: a spate of big and ambitious installations and performance works that turn Watermill’s 8.5-acre campus into a sort of surreal art wonderland. To reach it, the crowd for the night ascended a path, with margaritas in hand, through long swaying grasses. Up above, Miles Greenberg had arranged for naked bodies to lie splayed out between wooden poles on sheets of transparent plastic, in corpse-like repose. Then guests walked through the “Knee,” a part of Watermill’s main building that Wilson designed to be disarming, disorienting—to literally put a visitor off-balance and on the proverbial wrong foot. The floor is filled with rounded river stones that require time and strategy to traverse, and it was a sight to see women in gala-night heels teeter their way through. Inside the “Knee” were figures in bedazzled costumes in a piece by Raúl de Nieves and Erik Zajaceskowski, dancing like inhabitants of a distant country on another planet.
Past that, the grounds of the grand campus opened up and artworks were stationed along a snaking trail that went out into the woods and back again. A giant 90-foot wall was a centerpiece, with a message from Jenny Holzer in big block letters on one side reading SHE OUTWITS HIM / SHE OUTLIVES HIM. On the other side was graffiti that accumulated over the course of the night with spray paint and other writing utensils made available, in an installation attributed to Jokubas Nosovas, Nikitas Broukakis, and Sam Khoshbin. Among the messages there: “I’ll beat your ass,” “I never got laid thanks to art so I turned to politics,” and, curiously, “piss so crooked I pee on my own dick.” (Later in the night, another appeared: “Fuck you & your Hampton house.”)
The beginning of the trail was outfitted with a stage for dance performances as well as a line of would-be guards standing sentry with animal heads on sticks (Rachel Frank’s Deep Time Rewilding) and an arresting piece by Nile Harris, A Monkey on His Back (Love Laboratory), for which the artist assumed a position inside a mass of bananas with a noose around his neck. Nearby, another man in a lab coat slowly ate pieces of the fruit and methodically placed their peels in individual Ziploc bags.
Down from that was Stephen Shanabrook, in a seat in front of an industrial fan that blew freshly made cotton candy into a sort of grotesque cocoon that encased him. When he finally got up out of his chair later, after two hours of sitting there in sickly sweetness, he was in high spirits. “It wasn’t bad, actually,” the artist said. “It’s hot—it’s melted sugar when it comes out—but once you get a coating you don’t feel it anymore.” The outdoor setting made it more appealing than in a gallery, in any case: “I could see the sun through it,” he said, “and it was gorgeous.”
Cocktails were sipped in the center of the grounds around stores of art being auctioned for the benefit of Watermill, to help fund its residency programs for artists from around the world. (Artists from 26 nations took part in the night, as Wilson proudly pointed out.) But the triumphal vibe took a hit, at least for those of certain political persuasions, upon the arrival of a signal-scrambling guest: Rudy Giuliani. He looked bemused but also, in his baby blue blazer and yellow tie, in no small part pleased with the pageantry surrounding him. One couldn’t help but wonder how so much politically pointed and rhetorically noxious awfulness in recent years could emit from behind what seemed at least fleetingly like a perfectly affable mien. What he was doing there, in any case, would remain unknown, perhaps for the best.
At the dinner later under a big tent, guests were greeted on the way to their tables by a looped soundtrack playing “I’m Set Free” by Lou Reed, who was the subject of tribute for the night and the source of the event’s theme: “Fly into the Sun.” Laurie Anderson was there to celebrate her departed husband, and she took the stage hesitantly at the beginning of auction proceedings while attendees started working their way through dinner. “Are we still looking for money?” she asked at the very start.
At one point, trying to drum up funds for more artist residencies, Robert Downey Jr. jumped up on the stage and implored guests to give. “I will demand one hand from each table,” he said, “or I’m going to start getting really nutty.” Some extra gifts of $5,000 came in before Wilson himself stepped up again and said, “Be a headlight for what is right.”
Between courses, Claude Grunitzky—the newly appointed president of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation, which oversees the Watermill Center—said he was happy with what he had seen over the night. “I see more diversity and intergenerational discussion, which are important to me,” he said. “I want to bring more diversity. I get bothered by the segregation of the Hamptons, where the very wealthy elite live on one side and underserved communities on another. I want to bring more inclusion through education. It’s a mission that is more crucial than ever, and not just for those who can afford it.”
Raúl de Nieves, who was attending the benefit for his first time, said the experience made him feel tapped into a storied lineage—the Watermill Center was founded in 1992—that he had not known so extensively before. “My performance practice is about conjuring a good time with my friends,” he said, “and it’s amazing to be a part of something that has been cultivated for 25 years. There’s so much that can happen here.”