Magazine article The New Yorker

Had to Be There

Magazine article The New Yorker

Had to Be There

Article excerpt

HAD TO BE THERE

Robert Wilson, the veteran experimental-theatre director, is celebrated for his attention to light--for spending hours making fractional adjustments to tone and color. Who better, then, to comment on the photic implications of the proliferation of cell phones in contemporary life? "Take them away, and throw them right in the middle of the Hudson River," Wilson declared one recent afternoon, while creating an experiential installation for Hermes, the luxury-goods company, in a warehouse in Chelsea. "It's only a block and a half away," he continued. "Throw away every one of them. It drives me crazy." He brought up an opera that he had created with Philip Glass: "I did 'Einstein on the Beach' in '76, and I had everyone onstage doing this"--he stuck a finger out in front of him and moved it rapidly up and down, left and right--"and then we did a revival two years ago, and I looked out at the audience and they were all doing the same thing."

The remark was prompted by the transgression of one of Wilson's associates, who had pulled out a phone while Wilson was surveying one of the spaces he had made over for Hermes. Technicians had installed a large, ring-shaped screen, reminiscent of a carrousel, upon which a circling succession of closeup images--bright textile prints, grainy stitched leather, the rear end of a horse--was being rapidly projected, while a Philip Glass soundtrack played. The color palette was warm, with russets and oranges and occasional, reviving, splashes of blue.

Wilson objects to cell phones on the ground that they are a distraction--"It is just a totally different experience, especially if you are trying to concentrate on something," he said--and because of the quality of their luminosity. "I hate the light," he said. "It's cold, headache light. That was the big difference between 'Einstein' in '76 and the revival: the light has changed. Halogen light used to always be warm, which is beautiful to see in a restaurant. It is beautiful when you wake up in the morning and you see yourself in the mirror in the bathroom. And now you go to these hotels and it is all H.M.I. light"--that nasty, unflattering white. "What we are doing here is quite advanced, because these are cold lights that we are making warm," Wilson said. "We're doing it with a computer. But it is not a beautiful warm glow, the way old instruments could do. …

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