Watermill Benefit Has Become Rote, But the Installations Are Still Fun

The Watermill Center's annual benefit brought stilts, dinosaurs, and metal totemic men to the Hamptons.

By Ted Kruckel July 30, 2008, 3:06 PM EDT

An installation featuring two colorfully dressed women on stilts controlling shirtless men with string stood at the main entrance.

Photo: for BizBash

The Watermill Center, created and supervised by Robert Wilson, has thrown the East End’s most wild and unusual benefits for years now. Each summer, they have an artist (or a few) in residence. Then the artist, with the help of students and other art groups, takes over the multi-acre site that includes a large arts center, a sunken pine garden, and an enormous outdoor Japanese-style rock garden, all with various trails and benches for an outdoor evening of installations and performance art.

Over the years, the presentations, which once seemed so new and invigorating, have taken on a slight air of staleness. This is not to say that this year’s (or any year’s) performances lacked creativity and originality—actually the opposite is the case. One year there were little wood nymphs running around and whispering to each other. Another year there were “scarecrows,” which were actually just people with really long sleeves who seemed to beckon you upon arrival.

Instead, what seemed so clever about using the gardens and hidden walkways (all meticulously landscaped and bug free, FYI) now seems a tad rote. But still, the installations are fun, if not meaningful (to all).

This Saturday at the building’s main entrance, two girls wearing stilts and really long dresses giggled suggestively while pulling long yellow nylon cords attached to two shirtless (and shapeless) Asian males who danced slowly—not necessarily suggestively, but not wholesomely either. Perhaps the idea was about rich and poor, or sexual slavery or something. (The girls on stilts were colorfully dressed, while the males were half-naked.) But the movement between the puppeteers and puppets weren’t coordinated in any way, so the whole thing struck me as a tad silly. Still, the idea was clever, and myself and others stood and watched for a minute, trying to make sense of it while blocking the narrow entrance.

The entry vestibule, which is huge, is paved with large rounded river stones. Every year this is a big deal for the ladies in heels, and this was no different. Even in loafers it’s a bit of a trick. One year they had people lying as if fallen on the stones, and I thought, “Well that makes sense.” This year there was one worker assigned to help ladies through one of three doors. He tried, but it was quite comical—one lady would veer, he’d run and grab an elbow, then another would shriek and off he’d dash, trying to help all but satisfying none. Quite a bit of grumbling.

This year’s artist, Jonathan Meese, had a giant installation in the center, and I’m hoping that a picture will emerge here to save you a tortured description. (Last week my editor said my description of an art installation made no sense, so this week I’m just skipping the whole effort.) It was called “Marlene Dietrich in Dr. No’s Ludovico Clinic—Dr. Baby’s Erzland.” Is it enough to say it was very large and impressive?

Out back, a massive drumming noise turned out to be an art performance band. I met the drummer, who seemed perfectly lucid, as well as the artist who built the articulated dinosaur that you could ride like one of those bucking broncos they have in Texas. A few non-gentlemen jerks overdid it though, and the poor animal’s foam-rubber jaws and head had come apart. (It was obvious that this dino was built for a kinder, gentler audience.) Unfazed (“foam rubber is cheap”), the artist explained that the wood harnesses acted as vertebrae and that the main spinal cord was the same kind of joint that the Roto-Rooter man uses. It seemed ingenious.

The center of the cocktail area was dominated by a metal totemic man, at least humanoid, and all of his parts were intact, if you get what I mean—except that some wise guy had placed a cocktail napkin over his private parts, as a joke, I guess. I stood there looking at this complex stature for 10 minutes until I noticed that not only was I the only one bothered by this, I was the only one even looking at the statue. So, I figured what the heck and threw the napkin away. It was soiled, making me even more proud of myself, but as I said, no one was even looking at this multi-hundred-pound sculpture, so no one thanked me.

There were famous people there. I talked to Rufus Wainwright; he’s doing an all-piano album next. Kim Cattrall looked pretty and under-made up; I almost didn’t recognize her.

The dinner seating was one of those affairs where someone bleated into the microphone to sit down, yet I was the first at my table by 15 minutes. Steve Aaron, the photographer from Women’s Wear Daily, asked me to save him a seat, so I did, but it turned out they didn’t have him down for dinner—and boy was I in trouble. I apologized to some lady with a clipboard, who didn’t really accept my apology, and even offered my seat, but one fellow in particular was an angry sort so I left anyway. I’m sure the rest of the evening was swell.

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