The quintessential avantist. A man accused of genius as well as chicanery. His failures are more renown than most others' success. His position in the global world of theater is barely paralleled. Yet in the land of his birth, there is a chasm between the artist and his countrymen's popular culture. Reference to his obstinacy and temperament abound, and in some people's perspective...he is a monster...an artistic equivalent to the world's worse dictators.
We are talking about Robert Wilson. Many wonder why has Wilson risen to the prominence he has in world theater? The doubtful perceive Wilson's success as an enigma enabling an unearned entitlement. But is he merely a formalist lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time? Since the value of his artistic product is ultimately a question of taste, his most ardent detractors focus their criticisms on his process. The result is that when one thinks of Wilson, more often they think not of his imagery... but rather apocryphal tales of him bullying his collaborators.
However, there is a new documentary entitled Absolute Wilson, and this film shows you the life of the man and the amazing path that brought him to his theatrical apogee. Through it we are able to see that Wilson is not so easily dismissed as an elitist or collaborative tyrant.
Wilson has unquestionably been labeled by many as the sort of individual who walks into a room rigid, buttoned up, distant, encased, precious as a museum antiquity. Some even elude that his social skills better qualify him to be a window-dresser than a theatrical director. But, when one experiences the biography of the man through the documentary, a different image appears. And even if it is only an illusion, it is a valuable one that brings a heightened perspective to those who already claim to be fans, as well as providing a human face, and a previously impossible to conceive vulnerability to Robert Wilson allowing spectators access where previously there was
We do get video excerpts of him running about in slightly tyrannical fashion. In hindsight those shots of him in the midst of process are not so flattering. But, we also get to hear about the young Robert Wilson who prevented ill informed police officers from brutalizing a deaf minority. We see how he adopted the deaf boy and how they shaped their relationship into an artist collaboration. We hear about the troubled young Wilson who couldn't fit into the world, who wouldn't speak due to a terrible stutter until he was mentored by a woman named Byrd Hoffman. Suddenly the process viewed is not simply an elitist tantrum. His struggle in the rehearsal room is informed by the knowledge of work he did with patients in hospitals, helping people encased in iron lungs make performance art. One could argue that if the paradigm of artist as philanthropist has any validity, that Young Robert Wilson was the embodiment of that. Wilson enabled individuals like Christopher Knowles to create and inconceivably capture a spotlight unimaginable. This image of Robert Wilson, as valid as any other, is easily forgotten while he growls at technicians during a tech for an opera or obsessively moves a starred performer's limbs as if a mannequin's.
We see and hear of his process... both positives and problematics, but the process and the image of the man himself is transformed via his biography. Biography illuminates and even humanizes his difficult process. And once again this exposure to the audience better enables them to absorb and appreciate the man's work. His latest collaboration with Tom Waits or Lou Reed are far from what anyone could call humanitarianism, but it was a strangely awkward humanist approach that opened the door to Wilson's experience and his art. That knowledge has value for both Wilson and for a potential audience trying to understand his work.
Is It Worth the Risk - Documenting Creative Process - Part 1