At Watermill Benefit, I Found Wilting Weather and Puzzling Performance Art

By Ted Kruckel July 27, 2010, 5:32 PM EDT

I don't think of myself as a prude—I don't think anyone really does—but I have to confess that when I decided to be counterintuitive and take the campus art tour backwards at Saturday’s annual Watermill Center summer benefit, I realized that maybe I wasn’t quite as worldly as I thought. Having attended a few times before, I had a bead on the layout of the grounds, which were generously punctuated with Citronella torches that performed a yeoman’s job of keeping bugs away from the piney brush but, alas, only added to the warmth provided free by Mother Nature, who clocked in at 94 degrees at the 6 p.m. start time.

So I arrived rather than finished at the performance art piece “Have Mercy On Me” by Carlos Soto and Charles Chemin (though I counted five participants). It featured, variously, two naked men and one clothed woman on the floor, long black wigs, three red apples, a woman with an odd smock, and a regular guy drinking a glass of wine. When I looked at the piece through the doorway frame that was part of the installation, I could not help but wonder if the focal point of the whole work was one man’s anus, so prominently was it displayed.

I own a Robert Mapplethorpe nude self-portrait. I’ve been around. But for the life of me, I wasn’t sure where to look. Had I gotten too close? “You just got there at a bad time. He moves around into more forgiving poses,” a friend said. Now you tell me.

This event has become a real fixture on the scene. Times photojournalist Bill Cunningham covers it arduously, and newspaper gossip columnists, socialites, editors, fashion designers, and of course celebrities (I see Miranda Richardson, Alec Baldwin, and oddly, basketball self-hyper Chris Bosh) descend on the site, this year themed “Paradiso.” The “heavenly” dress code was observed by many, some literally (wings ranging from plastic to feathered), some figuratively. My favorite was a small man in a large white suit with an elaborate red flower on his lapel. I always like when people dress up for parties, don’t you?

But sometimes I’m not sure if these performance art installations are meant to be taken seriously. One titled “Antichambre” was a musical sculpture set on a wooden platform in the center of the more manicured part of the campus, what I call the plaza. It was a large sculpture with fuchsia poles sticking out of it, which two vividly dressed women, who may have been the artists and whose names might be Marie Eve Nadeau and Sofia Medici (certainly a good name for an artist), were using as a sort of limbo dance setup. They were drinking (and kicking over their glasses—fun!) but part of me thought they might just be party guests for whom the pink prosecco worked a tad too quickly. Hard to know. But then later there was a guy, I’m pretty sure with his shirt open, wearing matching fuchsia socks and eye makeup, dancing. Will the real performance artist please announce yourself?

But one thing must be said about this party: It is never boring. Two white gorillas greeted guests with ficus leaves—maybe a tad more wilted than the artists had planned—which had been sprayed with the Watermill Center 2010 fragrance, the formula to which was auctioned off later in the evening. That’s a first, right? The scent was certainly pleasant.

Waiters wore the leaves pinned to their white Nehru jackets (catering was by Olivier Cheng again this year) but alas hadn’t been briefed on what “notes” comprised the scent. But at least they knew what they were serving: A crispy manchego mini grilled cheese and a beef tenderloin with truffle oil and shaved parmesan were stand outs. Mr. Cheng was on hand to check on his food and to take in the sites. (It’s his favorite event of the year.)

Let’s see, what am I skipping? The TV set buried in wood chips that with two sisters showed the moon in its phases, by Robert Wilson, the artist founder of the Watermill Center. A pretty hanging sculpture made of fishing wire, aptly titled “Cloud.” A woman in an intricately folded paper bird costume. Two performers wrapped in sheet metal on foil-wrapped platforms covered in mirrors. Silver-painted humans hanging, writhing in nets, paired with marionette people in gold who gyrated when their strings were pulled, possibly in time with a violinist in a tree house. 

Did I mention that there were two separate installations that featured white apes? Again, that’s a first for me. The second one was sort of a Doctor Zhivago meets Planet of the Apes, all white and frozen-looking, with skulls hanging from trees.

I could go on and on, but truth be told it was just a bit too hot for me, which made me wonder whether they should consider pushing the start time back to 7 p.m., and whether all Hamptons hosts should do the same. Tell guests it’s Global Warming Time and they can reset their cocktail watches to 6 p.m. in the fall.

By leaving early I missed Sharon Stone acting as co-auctioneer, but it is an act I’ve seen before, many times. La Stone deserves her kudos; she really throws herself into it, cajoling donors and bidders alike into upping the ante. She convinced Robert Wilson to donate a second auction lot titled “Chair” (and a sturdy looking one at that) and got two bidders to cough up $45,000 for each. She also convinced singer Rufus Wainwright, a Watermill Center stalwart, to double his offer of performing at a private party. To whet their appetites, he performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and Sharon pulled an extra check for 50 grand.

While I might not know much about performance art, I do know about big-time fund-raising, and this event is no kiddie party. It raised more than $700,000 in ticket sales and will total approximately $1.4 million when the art sales are finally tallied.

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