Robert Wilson’s VOOM Portraits | For Your Consideration


A still from Robert Wilson’s high-definition video of Salma Hayek, 2006.

Robert Wilson’s “VOOM Portraits,” now on view at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City and CSPS in Cedar Rapids, through March 30, are encapsulated theater. They are the distillations of this artist’s long and rich career synthesizing the visual arts, dance, music, and staged creations. The descriptive “Portraits” here may be a misnomer.

The “VOOM Portraits” are presentations of videotaped “sittings” with celebrities, unknowns, and animals. They are the fruit of careful (and in most cases elaborate) staging, lighting, and direction. They have been recorded in state-of-the-art high-definition digital video, and are presented in stunning color and resolution via immense plasma screens with accompanying soundtracks. They are portraits in the sense that they portray single beings close-up, as well as full or partial figures. But they are theater in the sense that the individuals involved are generally not portraying themselves, but are vehicles through which discrete scenes of the artist’s conception are presented.

Wilson emerged from the fevered SoHo scene of 1960s New York. In that crucible of creative fervor, artists in all media broke from traditional definitions to explore the cross fertilization and hybridization of the arts. Happenings, performance art, and experimental theater redefined creative, multidisciplinary events in time and space. His productions were vitally engaged with the communal spirit of unbounded creative newness of the 1960s and ’70s New York art scene.

His productions were also heir to Richard Wagner’s visionary notions of the Gesamkunstwerk, the total work of art; Surrealist ideas of spectacle, imagination, non-linearity, and the synonymy of words and images; Samuel Beckett’s explorations with text and time; and certainly John Cage’s broad range of notions about the congruence of art and life. In 1971, poet Louis Aragon, one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, called Wilson “the future that we predicted.” 

Wilson’s early productions, notably Deafman’s Glance (developed and premiered at U of I’s Center for Performing Art in 1970) and the masterwork, created with composer Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (1976), along with most of his work from the 1970s, were characterized by an absence of linear narrative, spare architectural sets, galvanizing juxtapositions of incongruous, yet dreamily evocative images, repetitive text, and experiments with time and movement as plastic elements.

Most productions were many hours, or even many days, in length. Sometimes frustrating, yet for many audiences hypnotically fascinating, Wilson’s theater invited viewers to think, to contemplate slow-motion sequences in fantastic settings, or consider the meaning and quality of words via long repetitions. Above all, though, Wilson’s works were visually and sonically captivating, entrancing, and wonderful. He continues to stage his productions, as well as direct others’ operas and plays, and make visual art.

The “VOOM Portraits,” which Wilson has been creating since 2004 as the “artist-in-residence” at VOOM HD Networks, are vibrant and galvanizing moving images. The high-definition format, usually in vertical orientation, over five feet high, is stunningly three dimensional.

Each portrait captures a limited sequence of subtle, or at least slowly performed, movements. Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi lifts her bracelet-covered arm from the table, touches her hand to her face, and slowly lowers it, to be repeated endlessly. The many-times life-sized fur-covered face of Celine, a Briard dog, with tongue rhythmically panting, hides the occasional batting of her eye. Dressed as a little girl sitting on a giant jack, Isabella Rossellini jitters through smiles, puckers, and exaggerated widening of her eyes in surprise. Hers is the most frenetic of the lot, bright, colorful, funny, and altogether different from the somber Sean Penn, seen obscurely from behind in a dark fog beneath a backdrop-painted bridge.

In Norman Paul Fleming, one of the few “straight” portraits in the group, we look at the bent body and crooked face of this auto mechanic sitting at a wooden table with a single cup. The background is a plain but glowing sheet of blue. The sequence, maybe a few minutes long, is seamlessly looped. We are presented with this misshapen man, looking directly at us, shifting ever so slightly from side to side, while his swollen blue-gray hands rest on the table. His apparent discomfort and twisted visage, sliding in detailed layers of shirt, beard, and eyes behind the bib of his overalls, are there for our prolonged consideration. Resonating with Richard Avedon’s ravaged photographic portraits from his series “In the American West,” Wilson’s Norman Paul Fleming is painfully beautiful.

The “VOOM Portraits” are a varied collection of costumes, elegant colors, glamorous lighting effects, distance, and historical and artistic allusions (one of my favorites is Johnny Depp staged as Man Ray’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp in his guise as alter-ego Rrose Selavy), and sound. At the UIMA, the individual soundtracks, some musical, some textual, or both, co-mingle into a cacophonous roar, regularly punctuated by the screech of the snow owl, Kool, represented by several portraits in the rotunda of the museum. The soundtracks of individual pieces will rise and lower, forcing a shift in your auditory attention to spaces other than where you are looking. The effect in the darkened museum, punctuated by the glowing gem-like portraits, is surprisingly spatial, like standing on a beach surrounded by the sound of the ocean.

In the “VOOM Portraits” we cannot experience the complexity or scale of Wilson’s theater pieces. But essential elements of his sensibility are found in these luminously tight visual koans. They tantalize with discreet gestures, fulfill with masterly stagecraft, and provide the rewarding opportunity for lingering consideration.