At last Saturday’s summer benefit for the Watermill Center—the annual Hamptons bash thrown by the institution’s founder, Robert Wilson—art and corporate sponsorship dovetailed with unusual ease, all the way down to the evening’s animal theme: “VOOM Zoo” (a not-so-subtle nod to the HD-TV provider). To that end, arriving guests were greeted by a photo-op alongside artist Andrey Bartenev’s performers, who wore frog costumes bedecked with ads.
Reeds and torches lined the steps leading up to the Watermill’s main hall, through which guests had to pass in order to reach the party. For the evening's high-heeled contingent, walking the path was a task befitting a medieval quest. The floor’s large cobblestones—and indeed, much of the grounds—were a death trap; one guest in stilettos was downed on her way. The normally fearless Marina Abramovic, when asked by DJ Spooky whether she had yet seen his sound-art installation ensconced beyond several grassy tiers, responded, “Oh, all those steps!” then muttered something about crutches.
Of course, the evening’s theme wouldn’t be complete without a dress code, in this case “Wild Chic.” Getups ranged from arts patron Christophe de Menil’s understated snake brooch to AOL executive Tatiana Platt's stunning yellow-feathered concoction of a dress, whose saliency nearly outstripped the giant corporate logos that adorned the mural overlooking the center's plaza.
“This year’s sale will be through the roof,” promised Watermill arts and auction manager Maïa Morgensztern, as she monitored her staff’s last-minute preparations. “This time, we decided to go with hot, edgy art.” Her lush French accent at first made me think she’d said “hot, hedgy art,” which might have been equally apt, given the inclusion of crowd-pleasing pieces by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Robert Mapplethorpe. Soon, though, the unflappable Morgensztern was called away by an urgent plea: Where’s the fish artist? Alfred Taubman’s asking about the fish.” The reference was to Wonjung Choi’s ichthyological mobiles, which hung in a corner of the tent near Robert Wilson’s video portrait of a panther.
Performances punctuated cocktail hour—here a Taiwanese drum troupe, there a woman sitting covered in red paint, as staged by artist William Pope.L. At last, everyone was called into the dining tent, where guests were greeted by a stunning tableau vivant: the burlesque star Dita von Teese, in pasties and garter belt, perched on a swing hung high from metal rafters. It was a re-creation of the scene in Wilson's video up for auction. As von Teese posed, one collector remarked, “It’s nice, but I wouldn’t put it in my house.”
“Your cars have been shipped to Mexico, to be auctioned off for charity,” joked Wilson, joined onstage by Abramovic. Wilson then spoke about the trick to filming a panther: “The most important thing is you listen, listen like an animal. When we shot this video portrait of the panther in the studio, no one moved. We animals listen.” He ended his speech by imitating the cries of an indeterminate species: “Woa woa woahahah.” His yelps made Lisa Dennison’s opening remarks positively sober in comparison, as she pondered, “Could [the Watermill] become one of the most significant artist colonies of all time?” The stage was then turned over to Bartenev and his cast, who performed an “animal competition” replete with people wearing foam chicken suits and wings.
While the performers cavorted, auctioneer Simon de Pury kicked off the evening’s sale with VIP tickets to Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland show at the Hollywood Bowl. Next up was a Nan Goldin photograph of model James King. Acknowledging the cognitive dissonance intrinsic to all art auctions, de Pury proclaimed, “The piece is invaluable . . . and we start it at two thousand dollars.” Throughout the evening, de Pury continued his mix of praise, strong-arming, and enthusiasm, saying to one participant, “I love the underbidder, especially when as beautiful as you.”
As the auction continued, I caught up with Dennis Oppenheim and White Box's Martin Liu, sitting near Dennison and Ilya Kabakov. Several seats away was none other than the kindly Bill Paxton (most recently starring as the polygamist patriarch in HBO’s Big Love), who talked a bit about his father’s art collection. Then, as I stared agog at the foam chickens’ antics in the auction ring, Paxton remarked, Zen-like: “Just enjoy it. You don’t have to define it.”
Those impatient for a dance party rushed center stage as soon as de Pury wrapped up, and several of us took a break outside, including Wilson administrator (and rumored Wainwright beau) Jörn Weisbrodt and writer/model (and Ryan Adams beau) Jessica Joffe. Collectors keen on acquiring more art made their way to the silent-auction tent, where a Sol LeWitt aquatint and a photo by Hunter S. Thompson made me dream of buying. In the meantime, Wilson’s crew turned their attention toward the after-party at the “Big House,” though many attendees debated moving on to a nearby Russell Simmons soiree.
So while twenty stalwart guests held down the dance floor, others began trickling off into the night. Artist Cory Arcangel, whose Warhol video game was on display, plotted to clear the dance floor, once and for all, by playing Journey’s power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing.” And had he actually been given permission to DJ? “I’ve reached the point in my career where I get to do anything I want,” he said. “Though it’ll probably only last for a month.”