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Robert Wilson creates a feast for the senses

26 February 2018

The celebrated theatre director and artist Robert Wilson has created an exhibition on the Qing dynasty, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which immerses visitors in a series of evocative spaces. He explains his approach to Thomas Marks.

Did you know the Mia collection before you were invited to work on
this exhibition?
Not well, but I knew something about it. I had been to Minneapolis a number of times, to the Walker, and performed here in the early ’70s. In the early ’80s I worked on a very large project, The Civil Wars, which was supposed to be a 12-hour theatre work for the 1984 Olympics, and I built the interlude scenes in Minneapolis and showed them at the Walker. I visited the museum then.

Have you always been interested in the art and thought of China?
Yes, and one reason to do something like this is to learn more, and to give me time to focus on something I’m interested in. I’ve been to China a number of times recently – actually I was a teacher there, and gave lectures in 1991 and ’92 at the University of Shanghai.

How do you begin to design an exhibition like this?
The best class I ever had in school was taught by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the wife of the Bauhaus architect, who taught a five-year course on the history of architecture. I was a young man from Waco, Texas, and didn’t know anything about anything. And her class was most unusual: the room was relatively dark, except light on her, and she stood at a podium, usually formally dressed in black or dark blue, and read from her notes which were on filing cards. Behind her, she had three screens, and images were projected on these screens rapidly, so you would have a Byzantine mosaic, a Renaissance painting and a chair by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the images had nothing to do with her lecture… It’s curious, after three months, after a year, after three or four years, how much one begins to absorb and learn.

In the middle of the third year, she said, students, you have three minutes to design a city. Ready, go. You had to think very quickly about the big picture. I drew an apple and inside that apple I put a crystal cube – the plan for a city, as cities need something in the core of the apple, like a crystal cube that can reflect the universe.I keep drawing on this one class. Whether I’m directing the Ring by Wagner, Goethe’s Faust, or a new opera like Einstein on the Beach, I see if I can tell myself what it is in three minutes or less.

And with this exhibition?
When I was thinking about this exhibition, I had actually been asked to do something in Japan – an exhibition that didn’t happen – and was thinking that Japan is about threes, fives, sevens, about odd numbers. But with China, for me it was about two. I started with the number two. And then I started thinking about the spaces – whether it’s like yin and yang, two hands but one body, two sides of the brain but one mind. So I began to work on the architecture, and I asked myself which was the first room of the ten spaces I had, and then which was the last. Which is the second, and how does it mirror or complement the ninth? What’s in the centre?

Installation view, ’Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2018, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Installation view, ’Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2018. Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

And were you already thinking about light at that point?
I was very fortunate that Louis Kahn spoke during my first year in school.
He told the students to start with light, that light is the most important element. That was another hammer. In theatre usually someone writes a play, and you get a cast and you direct the play, and then you read the text and you design ‘stage decoration’ – I hate those words, there shouldn’t be decoration on stage. But I always thought with light. Light is what will create the space.

Whereas curators tend to start with objects. How did you select the objects for this exhibition?
There’s no one way to start… there’s no one way to do anything. I designed the exhibition not thinking about particular objects: I knew I wanted the first space to be completely black and dark and silent, and more or less empty. And I wanted the second space to be very bright and to have hundreds of objects. And then I thought the next room should be of straw, woven straw – I was also working with smells, the strongest of all the senses, still not knowing the objects.

I wanted something small in the largest room. And I wanted that to face something very imperial, red, and thought of a dragon, painted round the next room, with its face towards the entrance and this one small object. So I go through all the spaces until I know something about what it smells like, and something about the light, generally speaking. And then I work with curators, because the curators know the collection much better than I do.

If we’re going to have one small object facing a dragon, what do you think it should be? In space two, we want hundreds of objects, what do you suggest?
It’s a little bit like directing an opera or a play. If you’re a good director, you give a direction but you know that ultimately someone else is going to have to perform it. For an exhibition, I make a rather strict form, an architectural plan, and then I work with many people from the museum and they begin to fill it in. They have a kind of freedom to say this should be here, or this should be over there, but we have the megastructure in place. Selecting the objects comes towards the end.

Should museums do more to engage senses other than vision?
I think so. Last summer, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a Chinese art exhibition. It was beautifully done, and the works were great – I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I will – but I felt like I was in high school, like I was getting a lesson. I’m not trying to lecture people with this exhibition – this is something I experience, and something I want to see, and it’s also something for children.

I think that whatever we do, it’s important that we think about children. What would a child see? For a child going through this exhibition, hopefully it’s going to be exciting, the experience of just being in these different spaces, with the light, smell, and objects. Susan Sontag said that to experience something is a way of thinking, and it’s not necessarily an intellectual thing. To me the experience is most important.

‘Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty’ is at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until 27 May.

From the March 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here