This year — but let’s face it, pretty much every year — naked people were the first thing you saw walking in to the 24th annual benefit for famed performance artist Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. Every summer, the center becomes home to some 150 artists, each working on an installation or performance project, many of which go on display all at once during what is probably the coolest chi-chi event in existence. On Saturday, two of those artists, a man and a woman, were lying naked, immobile, and silent atop clear plastic canopies as arriving guests walked underneath, staring up at smushed genitals, breasts, arms, cheeks, and the outline of the bodies against the fading evening light. It was one helluva way to enter.
The event was titled “Fly Into the Sun,” after the Lou Reed song. The dearly departed rocker and famous grump was an old friend of Wilson’s (they’d last worked together in 2012 on “Lulu,” a piece of German expressionism using Reed’s music) and longtime attendee of the benefit; all the artwork and performances had been curated as a tribute to him. We’re not sure what Reed would’ve thought of all the naked people, but he probably would’ve been delighted.
Whoa, that guy looks exactly like Robert Downey Jr.
Once guests had crossed floor of uneven rocks and past a few guys in full tribal costume (what tribe, I do not know), they reached the main lawn. The centerpiece was a 90-foot wall reading “She Outwits Him / She Outlives Him” in block lettering on one side, and covered in a chaos of graffiti on the other side. Wheelbarrows filled with spray paint, plus tall ladders were there for the guests to use. The words “Trump is cunt” were prominently displayed. As Wilson told the guests later on, “We managed to build a wall before Donald Trump!”
A series of black huts each contained a new surprise: a man who seemed to be floating midair; a woman who was naked but for what looked like sea anemone growing off her skin; another naked woman covered in gold and singing a very eerie version of “Hush, Little Baby.”
Seriously, was that Robert Downey Jr.?
Out in the woods, there was a dance routine between a bearded man and a lady wearing a beard, plus a bunch of stoic people carrying fake animal heads on sticks. The most colorful, and disturbing, installation was a towering pile of bananas covering the trunk of a tree, but when you walked around the tree, you saw a young black man buried in bananas with a noose around his neck. Adding to the disturbing factor was another young man hanging from chains and dressed as the mythical creature Pan, with hooves on his feet, and fingers stretched out into 12-inch claws. Completing the set of works that made you want to stop Instagramming was a performance by a woman as a very sad coal miner with a horrible cough and no hands, and a naked African-American woman who spent the entire two-hour cocktail hour on her hands and knees, painting a giant white canvas on the floor with furious red symbols. There seemed to be a theme.
But then there was also the guy who sat in a chair with a fan blowing cotton candy onto his face until he was just a pink, fluffy shadow of a man. Definitely the most fun to watch.
At the dinner and auction, the guy I kept seeing who looked a lot like Robert Downey Jr. turned out to be Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a friend of Wilson’s and took it upon himself to raise some money for the center, first by donating $5,000 himself, and then by haranguing others for it: “I’m going to demand $5,000 from every table or things are going to get really nutty!” he said, then offered to give out a “$5,000 selfie” and do a three-way harmony with honorees Laurie Anderson and Isabelle Huppert for money. (Huppert has collaborated with Wilson multiple times, “but not like these poor girls when you first get in, naked on top of the plastic,” she said.)
Before the night was over, everyone filed upstairs to watch Laurie Anderson play a few songs for Lou. She put a little white electronic device into her mouth called a “pillow speaker” and sang through it. It made her voice sound like Jabba the Hut. “A pillow speaker is a little speaker you put in your pillow at night so you can do things like learn German in your sleep,” she said. “Never worked for me. I’d always wake up feeling extremely paranoid. Anyway, being a somewhat oral person, I kind of enjoy putting electronics in my mouth, so I did with this.”
The best part, though, was when she announced, mournfully, “sometimes it’s so hard to live,” and revealed the three rules she and Lou had come up with for living
No. 1: Don’t be afraid of anyone. Can you imagine what your life would be if you were afraid of nobody?
No. 2: Get a really good bullshit detector and then learn how to use it.
No. 3: Be really, really tender.
Not bad rules! Now graffiti a wall, cover your face in cotton candy, and get naked. Oh, and give Robert Downey Jr. $5,000.