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Robert Wilson's Vision JohannesBirringer Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1991) Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston San Francisco Museum of Modern Art In this country only the mountains give echo, not the men and women. Ibsen, Notes on Wben We Dead Awaken ALTHOUGH SOME OF Wilson's designs and theatre props have infrequently been shown at galleries or collected by major museums in Europe and the U.S., it has been almost a decade since the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati first explored "The Theatre of Images" (1980) as the work of a visual artist. And never, at least to my knowledge, have the dialectics between the hybrid genre of postmodern performance and visual art/design been so provocatively demonstrated as in the full retrospective of Wilson's working vision mounted by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1991. The Boston project emerged after several years of collaboration between Wilson and curator Trevor Fairbrother, following in the wake of the American Repertory Theatre's rare support of Wilson's large-scale work inside the U.S. (in 1985 the ART recreated the German part of the multi-national epic, the CIVIL warS, and one year later premiered Alcestis). According to Fairbrother the exhibition was meant to be the occasion for a new collaborative "vision": of the museum-as-stage for a series of 80 encounters with the diverse media of Wilson's craft, his works on paper, furniture, sculpture, costumes, theatre drops, videos and installation pieces. The show was organized as a traveling tour, first opening in Boston and thereafter in Houston and San Francisco, while a parallel exhibition of Wilson's furniture/sculpture from 1969 to the present was being prepared by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. When I saw Robert Wilson's Vision in Houston I was struck by the processual, performative quality of the arrangement, and perhaps the sound installation "The Night before the Day," created by Wilson's long-term collaborator Hans Peter Kuhn, was instrumental in translating Fairbrother's concept of a "staging." Kuhn's eerie and mysterious soundscapes, traveling across the rooms, turn the exhibition into a flight of the imagination, almost transforming our normal museum behavior of visual observation into an acoustic experience. We are transformed because many of the natural sounds (water, wind, dogs barking, laughter), like the less recognizable sound collages of foreign voices and whisperings over breaking glass or echoing cobblestones, may evoke memories and moods that alter the perception. We have no firm grasp of the objects in space; their functions or former roles or present meanings escape us. The evocative power in the plasticity of these objects does not completely resist interpretation, but their astonishing beauty and indeterminacy present a major aspect of Wilson's entire approach to images and to the media (architectural design, drawing, light and movement design, sound) he uses to build his visions. After leaving Texas to study interior design at New York's Pratt Institute, then to become one of the most prominent avant-garde stage directors, Wilson's return to Texas in 1991 created a special opportunity to see his work for the theatre-in his staging of When We DeadAwaken at the Houston Alley Theatre-from the perspective of the visual art/design that generates his performances. As foreign as his visual sensibilities were to the realism of mainstream theatre, so does the exhibition present an anomaly, transgressing art-historical definitions and the norms of museum display. In a sense Wilson builds his own mise en scene into the existing space at the Contemporary Art Museum , staging a version of what an opera in three acts might look like in a museum. Fairbrother, who is also responsible for the beautifully executed catalogue that incorporates a CD of Kuhn's sound into the book design, addresses the curatorial paradox of Wilson's Vision by noticing that this "retrospective" of drawings and sculptures is and yet is not a show of art objects. Rather, Wilson theatricalizes the museum by creating a complex, self-referential multi-media installation that brings the drawings for his 81 theatre works, and the designed stage furniture, costumes, and props, into new and unexpected relationships with the sound...


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