Eat, Drink, Make Art, Repeat

A summertime art residency where collaboration depends on cross-cultural, communal eating.

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When I first toured the Watermill Center last winter I was immediately struck by the kitchen. Austere and stainless, it was meticulously provisioned for large-group communal cooking and eating. Our guide told us, in summer, millenia-old bowls from Indonesia and Africa are filled to overflowing with local tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, garlic and other seasonal veggies. That there is an chef in residence—often from Southeast Asia—and that the resident artists eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together al fresco on long tables and benches made from massive chunks of wood that are at once ancient and industrial–like so much at the center. There was talk of a rooftop garden, a new grove of lowbush blueberries (chosen for their nativity and how their horizontal orientation juxtaposed with the birches above), and food-making performance art to complement the Center’s other programming. I had to know more.

And so I returned in July to find myself treated to a wondrous tour of the center by its founder Robert Wilson–a director, playwright and tireless collaborator with all arms of the arts–as he explained why a rooftop garden completes the spiritual design of the center and why food-making activities are central to the place’s mission. “We all help in the prep and serving and clean up of meals,” Wilson said. “All of the planting, gardening and weeding we’ve done ourselves. If you make a table. It has different feel than if you buy it.” In the background, children completed art projects, and a crowd of visitors noshed on local granola—garnished with local berries, rooftop mint and honey from beekeeper Mary Woltz who spoke on the state of the bees.

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One of world’s most influential theater artists, Wilson’s work is known for its immense scale, conceptual complexity, exacting detail, and fearless mashing up of collaborators. “Einstein on the Beach,” co-written with an autistic person, was originally performed over five hours, with no intermission, no story line and minimalist music from soon-to-be-discovered composer Philip Glass. (At the end of July, the center just held its 20th annual benefit this summer, where the dress code is “sinful fun” and one of the planned performances involves bodies shellacked with flower patterns.) While food isn’t a common component of his productions, Wilson has a longer history with edible installations and the intersection of art and food activism. He spoke fondly of –as he spoke fondly of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose SoHo restaurant-cum-art installation FOOD was a neighbor to Wilson’s SoHo loft, where Matta-Clark lived for some time. And Wilson hosted openhouses on Thursday nights that were not unlike the events at FOOD. “We had one floor on which people ate. There was another floor for dancing. And another floor for discussions. Eating and preparing food together was very much a part of it.”

A tour of the center is a little like a tour through Wilson’s storied career (especially when he’s giving the tour), with mementos from friends, collaborators and influences as touch stones. He led us past the simple plywood beds of the dormitory (think Army barracks designed by IKEA), the flawless rows of glasses on the shelves in the kitchen, and his own collection of Indonesian art (among the largest in the world and the envy of the Met and other institutions). Many of the objects hold some connection to cooking, foraging and eating, including ancient pig tips (used for hunting pigs), turtle floats (for catching turtles), and Zulu beer pot. These stand beside uniquely modern items: a plexiglass chair with flowers embedded in it by Kuramata [ck]; a block of furniture foam from Chinatown; a photograph of Man Ray, whose critique of Wilson’s 1971 work in Paris [xx] “established my career;” a self-portrait by a breakout artist who commit suicide just one week after sending Wilson the image.

The 20,000 square foot building now functions as a flexible working-living space including a research library, galleries, rehearsal and staging spaces, workshops, offices, and residences situated on the six acres of grounds filled with stone courtyards, secret gardens and outdoor stages. From a catwalk hovering above a round stone walkway and in the shade of a floating roof that lets rain through, Wilson walked us through the “concept of the building,” diagramming it on a clipboard as he spoke. “The building and property were very unusual for the Hamptons,” said Wilson, remembering when he purchased the former Western Union laboratory for experimentation in telecommunications (the fax machine was developed here) with plans to revive it as a laboratory for experimentation in performance. “I recognized it as a classical form with a square courtyard. The East West axis cuts from the entrance to the exit, the way the sun rises and falls. Death and passage.” At one point in the tour, he props open doors at opposite ends of the building—at least 100 feet apart—to show how the light shines through, how the lines of the compass cut through us all.

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He compared the levels of the Center to a traditional Indonesian Nipa hut or house on stilts, with the cattle and livestock kept on the bottom level, the living quarters above, and the rice stored and protected just under the roof. The center was likewise arranged to channel the energy and inspiration from the ground upward. The basement archive, like manure, “fertilizes” and inspires rest of work and provides feedstock for rotating displays throughout the center. The living and working quarters, including the kitchen and ding areas, were just above. “And then a garden on top. It’s a spiritual side of the building. A vegetable garden, an organic form.” There are plans to more than double the size of the garden next year and plant a more rambling and chaotic plot than the existing geometrically-organized square beds.

During summer, the center usually has one chef and one souschef—often also dancers, actors, painters in residence at the center—cooking for the very international population. Chefs have hailed from Mexico, Malaysian, France and this year, Indonesia. The chef this year is from Indonesia. A dancer and member of a royal family, “he prepares food the way he dances and the way he eats with his hands,” Wilson mimes the motion a dancer might drawing his hand from his sternum up through his nose and above his head.

In late July, as midday thunderstorms threaten, the resident chef at the Watermill Center, Illenk Ilolo, has layed out a spread that included a spicy Balinese meat stew called Rendang, a mango and shrimp salad with lime dressing, yellow coconut rice, and fried, shredded vegetables called Bakwan. The 70 or residents, from 30 countries, plus dozen or so staff and guests, have gathered at benches and tables that stretch into the distance, each Long tables and benches made from massive chunks of wood. “We saw them at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in lower Manhattan and being loaded into a dumpster,” Wilson recalled of the 50 former floor beams that became Watermill Center furniture. “We asked the people if we could have them and they said we can have them all as long as can get out of here by 6 a.m.” (Before these tables and benches, the Center had a temporary kitchen under a tent and bare-bones tables of plywood and plumbing pipe based on a design that Bill De Kooning was fond of.)

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“Bob says there is no difference between living and making art.” says Maciek Lukaszewicz, operations manager. The meals are informal, with attendees cuing at buffet style lines, although the center has developed plenty of its own dining rituals, including a particular way for folding the napkins (to direct the eater’s eye towards the plate). “The kitchen is so important here,” said Kapuchik. “It’s where a lot of ideas come about. Where people come together and interact and talk.” Wilson himself is particularly fond of meals with others and late night conversations lubricated with a glass of wine. “We pull the weeds. We water beds. We help in prep of food,” says dancer, Center manager and garden manager Nixon Beltran, who notes that this work offers residents a platform for creative cross-pollination. “Within the mundane activity, inspiring thoughts and actions will happen. Something happens when people who wouldn’t cook or garden together share these mundane actions.” The garden, equipped with drip irrigation, to help it cope with the extremes of rooftop agriculture. “It’s a totally different climate on top,” says Beltran. “And there are no bugs.” Square planting.”

On the rooftop, Wilson–who grew up in Waco, Texas, and learned about crop rotation from his father who kept a Victory garden–plucked peas and handed one to each of us–an offering to chew in a moment of quiet reflection. “I’d rather garden than learn Hamlet,” jokes Wilson, who has played every part of Hamlet. Someone notes how immaculate the raised beds and that they don’t see a single weed. “I do!,” Wilson shouts. Everyone laughs and then bends down to pull weeds.

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