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Gunpowder Park, part of the Lee Valley Regional Park officially opened in June 2004, and adds an enormous arts resource to Greater London. It is a 90 hectare site (a regenerated Royal Ordnance munitions testing facility) and is swiftly establishing a unique cultural programme, involving visual art, performance, science and nature. Using marsh, meadow

and field and the Field Station gallery spaces, its cultural projects will be diverse and are organized by Landscape + Arts Network Services (LANS) in partnership with Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. Its latest project is attracting international attention and is indicative

of the LANS major aspirations for Gunpowder Park. It involves Robert Wilson, a major international figure in the world of theatre and performance.

 

Since emerging out of the avant-garde art scene in New York in the 1960s, Wilson has developed an integrated interest in art, performance and scenography for which it is difficult to find precedent. He is outstanding for his interdisciplinary work, from theatre and opera direction to stage design, furniture design and installations. His sculpture and installations have attracted a level of acclaim comparable to his theatre productions, with exhibitions from the Guggenheim in New York to the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. His 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach (with Philip Glass) confirmed his international prominence and since then he has directed and designed an enormous range of theatrical and operatic works from Lohengrin at the Metropolitan in New York to Madam Butterfly at the Bolshoi Opera, Moscow. His interest in classical repertoire is counterpoised with a continual involvement in contemporary art forms, as well as an enduring interest in non-western art. This latter interest is manifest in his enormous art collection, as well as one of his most recent productions, I La Galigo, based on an epic poem from Indonesia (2005). He operates professionally as Artistic Director of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation: this is an organization with an extraordinary network of supporters (from Philip Glass to Giorgio Armani), and many objectives, one of which is the development of the Watermill Centre, a laboratory for creative and intellectual activity in Long Island, New York.

 

Gunpowder Park’s creative policy favours interdisciplinary collaborations, and Wilson’s

initial workshop (seminars) co-curated with the LANS team led by Artistic Director, Eileen

Woods, held between 3rd and 7th of May 2006, involved UK based artists Michael Pinsky,

David Chapman and Simon Lee Dicker as well as an international array of distinguished

individuals, including political scientist Dr. Benjamin Barber, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen,

Russian artist and designer Andrey Bartenev, Austrian composer Hubert Achleitner, the

teacher and choreographer Leah Kreutzer Barber, theatre producer from Milan, Elisabetta

di Mambro, designer Serge von Arx, not forgetting a fifteen year Nellie Barber (old girl,)

who for Wilson, ‘had interesting things to say’. Robert Wilson does not work in a spirit of

self-assertion or bring any specific objectives or preconceived ideas – he invests his energy

within the collaborative process with a specific site. ‘I try to go with no ideas. When you

have too many preconceptions it is difficult to think in a new direction. I try to listen to the

land, listen to my collaborators, form megastructures, and invite people to participate.’

 

The objective at Gunpowder is not to create a piece of ‘fine art’, but environments or

installations which themselves would provide a framework for further activity. This will

emerge in concrete form as the year unfolds; these initial workshops involved intellectual

interaction, forming a ‘megastructure’ of concepts through which applied activity would

emerge later in the summer.

 

Firstly, what were his motivations for involvement at Gunpowder? Wilson stated:

 

‘I am always looking for ways to establish partnerships, international or global connections

to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Hopefully, we can establish that spirit at Gunpowder

Park. This is what I am doing at the Watermill Center for the arts and humanities that I

established near New York in the early 1990s. I do not know England so well, and so I also

saw a chance to learn more about the situation here, to work with artists locally and give

them a voice to their work’. He described the initial objectives of the collaboration as the

creation of a ‘megastructure’ of ideas and concepts. He also hopes that connections

between the UK and the US can emerge from this project on many different levels.

 

While Wilson is obviously interested in the aesthetics of ‘staged’ space, to which his theatre

work and art installations attest, he is fascinated by open outdoor spaces. ‘I would like

to keep Gunpowder Park as a natural site, but with temporary installations and give a new

dimension to nature, but leave it as nature in its own right. Gunpowder Park has a borderline atmosphere, between city and country, industrial site and farmland, and I reacted very strongly to that. It's open, not completely defined and open to different possibilities.’

 

Wilson’s conception of London as a site for his work is formed around a sense of its

contemporaneity. ‘When I think of London, the first thing that comes to my mind is the explosion in the visual arts over the past 10 years. This surge of creativity is very powerful, very vital. I have not worked as much in London as in other big European cities, and so strangely enough for me it is fresher, less explored.’ The Gunpowder Park, though, is a context that is once-removed from the metropolitan density of the city. ‘Although the people working on the project come from different countries, we are working on a very specific site, the Lee Valley, with very specific challenges. This is a place where ammunition was produced, where land has been poisoned. It is a chance to start with a barren landscape and perform an exorcism of the past. At the same time, we are trying to create a kind of ribbon around the world, so as visitors move through the landscape, they get a sense not only of their backyard but of the wider world beyond. We would like to connect Gunpowder Park with the Watermill Center and other sites all over the world.’

 

Again: Wilson’s work has largely taken place on ‘interior’ sites, such as a concert hall stage

or within a gallery environment; such sites create a distinct arena, quite separate from the

dynamics and contingencies of the world around. So did Wilson seek to create a space

within this space – a kind of stage -- or did the Park present an environment with which to

interact?

 

‘I think that what is interesting about cities as places is that they are an alternation of buildings and trees, and the trees will make you see the buildings. At Gunpowder Park, we are trying to incorporate the buildings around the park to make you see nature. There are big pylons all around the site, and so we thought, why not build some on the property and paint them yellow, make them part of the scenery. Similarly, why not take some of the housing projects that exist in the neighborhood, scale them down, and reproduce them on the site as installations, as spaces for encounters. It is almost a question of classical structure: in the earliest theater, there is a protagonist and an antagonist, and their interaction makes you see the structure of the story - they are reacting to one another, just like buildings and trees.’

 

All of Wilson’s work, both theatrical production and visual art, is characterized by both

vigorous experimentation and a formal discipline. Holding these two things together is not

an easy task for an artist. ‘All my work has always had a formal structure. The bones of my

productions are classical. All my work on one level is about permutations of possible

structures. Einstein on the Beach [1976] was like that, and so was The Life and Times of

Joseph Stalin [1973]. Construction and form are important. That's why I have always

thought about my productions as being classical. If I do a play by Euripides, I don't presume

to know what Euripides thought about it, but I am looking for the structure of the play to

understand it. When I did Heiner Müller's Hamlet Machine, I reduced it to a symmetrical

form because that was what made sense to me. Heiner said: “I never thought about it that

way, but you are right”. Once the structure is in place, one is free to fill in the form.’

 

Wilson’s artistic convictions were decisively formed four decades ago in the iconoclastic

New York art scene. He began as a business student, but on moving to New York from his

native Texas in 1963 he turned to architecture and then painting and then to dance and

performance. A synthetic and highly experimental sensibility characterized his workshops

and performances of the late 1960s, in which interaction and communication were central

to the creative dynamic. ’Watermill is very much about going back to my roots. It is about bringing people together in workshops, about working collectively, very much like what the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds [his first experimental workshop] did in the Spring Street loft I had in the 60s. My approach has not really changed since that time. A recent piece like Peer Gynt is like my early play Deafman Glance [1970]: bring a group of people together and see how they move. Merce Cunningham builds his pieces on bodies and the way they move, and I work in a similar way. I do not come in with ideas, I work with people and that dictates what is going to happen. If you come in with preconceived idea, you will try to mould people into that, and that wastes time. If you wait for the people to come to you, the material in front of you will tell you what to do. Start with a blank canvas and take it from there, one step at a time. That is, I suppose, very much an aesthetic of the 60s and early 70s.’

 

But what about the current time? The socio-political climate in which we live is both distinct

and intense, in which the US and its globally exported culture evokes antagonistic

emotions. Does art embody specific social and political commitments for Wilson?

 

‘Art can embody both these things. But artists have to be careful with religion and politics. Often politics and religion divide men. Art can be universal and spiritual, but that is an aspect that is very difficult to talk about. Myself, I am not explicitly political or religious, but all of my

work is rooted in social realities. My first play was written with a thirteen year old deafmute

boy and was silent. Every movement of the body is political at some level, because it makes a statement.’

 

‘When Martha Graham was 95 she was working on a new ballet. She was interviewed by

the New York Times, and the reporter asked her: "What's it like to create a new ballet", and

she responded without hesitation: "I chart the graph of my heart". She also once said, "The

body does not lie". That has a truth in itself. I start with something cold and intellectual, like

a graph, but the body fills it intuitively. I try to strip down a work. The more space there is

around anything, the more important it becomes. On an empty stage, if you put just one

thing, it becomes very important. Put a hundred things, and the effect will be weaker. My

work must be about one thing first. Then, it can be about a million things, but it has to be

about one thing first. When I did Büchner's Leonce and Lena, I had one image of what it

was all about: Leonce and Lena is like a pretty face with a scar. Whether you direct Hamlet,

King Lear, or Wagner’s Ring, I have to be able to tell myself what it is in a few simple

sentences so I can quickly see the whole. And making sense of the world around you is the

beginning of politics.’

 

The Gunpowder Park project is continuing. Since the Gunpowder Park / Wilson workshops,

LANS has responded to recent cultural and economic events to curate ‘The Art of Common

Space’ a series of arts led events, commissions and debates, both live and virtual, responding to the question, ‘What is ‘common space’ in our 21st century multicultural society?’ Drawing on the historic term of ‘the commons’ which implied the shared use of land by a community, this question looks at the very basic premise of ‘public’ spaces and asks if there still exists a current space which we can call ‘common’ – an important space that through its use, facilitates the celebration and bringing together of individuals from the diverse cultures that constitute our society Wilson’s involvement in the origins of the project continues to influence the work, which now has a heart and life of its own. With its developing creative philosophy, the Gunpowder Park team continues to collaborate with sites like the Watermill Center to create a global network of individuals and organisations dedicated to environmental, aesthetic and social interaction.

 

Jonathan Vickery is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at Warwick University, researching a broader range of issues relating to art, culture and the public sphere. He is an executive editorial board member of a new journal: Aesthesis: International Journal of Art

and Aesthetics in Management and Organizational Life, and also Reviews Editor and regular contributor to Art & Architecture Journal. He has published on art theory, aesthetics and urban regeneration, also co-editing the popular anthology Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, (Oxford: Berg, 2007).

 

www.robertwilson.com

www.watermillcentre.org

www.artandarchitecturejournal.com

 

 

Robert Wilson at Gunpowder Park

 

Interview by Jonathan Vickery

for Art & Architecture Journal May 2007

wilson at gp