IT TAKES GUTS to specify “flaming” as a dress code in the Hamptons, but the annual benefit for Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, a “laboratory for performance” tucked away near Southampton, is a sufficiently established date on the local social calendar (this was the sixteenth installment) that a crowd is assured no matter what the sartorial stipulation. Even so, while many guests at Saturday evening’s “Inferno” shindig made at least a nod toward the too-hot-to-handle theme, a few went to the opposite extreme; The Whitney’s Shamim Momin, Participant Inc.’s Lia Gangitano, and performance-art poster girl Marina Abramovic, for example, had evidently abandoned the attempt to unearth anything but basic black in their summer wardrobes. Others, like MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, clad in powder-blue linen, went for lighter but similarly cool alternatives. (Among those who did try: writer Jay McInerney and Real Housewife countess LuAnn de Lesseps.)
Required first to negotiate Sue de Beer’s Ring of Trees—the installation was set on a floor of loose rocks that sent those clad in high heels (of which there were many) flailing for support—guests emerged onto the center’s expansive rear courtyard, where one marquee, housing auction lots, faced off against another, marked for dinner. While fuel in the form of cocktails was dispensed, an oddball lineup of carnivalesque happenings opened with a fire eater and continued with a group of children clustered into the form of a giant spider. Riverbed Theater’s quieter intervention, Flowers of E, occupied the roof of an ancillary building, as a torch-lit wooded area at the property’s far end was dotted with further diversions. Perhaps most absorbing of these, if only for its incongruous austerity, was a performance that combined drama, dance, and music in a stark, ritualistic style for an audience split between those earnestly scribbling notes and those just looking worried.
“Certain critics hated it, certain critics loved it.” Back by the auction tent, which was starting to look busy by seven or so, Stetson-wearing musician Rufus Wainwright was holding court about his own recent output and anticipating his upcoming set at the Watermill’s “Last Song of Summer” gig in August. Masked by shades, critic James Trainor kept a somewhat lower profile, while Team Gallery’s Alex Logsdail played us an alarming iPhone slide show that pictured his own eyes ringed with bruises, the now-faded results of a recent accident.
Wandering over to the dinner tent for a reccy, I was treated not to the sought-after meal, but to sundry exchanges perhaps more representative of those who had actually paid to be there. “A friend of ours just moved into an artists’ co-op on Sixty-seventh Street,” one senior gent was telling his party. “A neighbor came by and introduced himself as ‘Paul.’ Turned out it was Paul from Peter, Paul, and Mary!” “Oh yes,” one of his audience responded brightly, “we know him too!” “Supposedly David Bowie is here—have you seen him?” a twinkly white-haired man asked me as I took a seat beside him and his wife for a quick overview. I confessed that I hadn’t. “The de Menils are around, though,” he advised me. “Lovely people.” Admiring Yochai Matos’s fluorescent-tube installation Flame Gate, we both confessed to having mistaken it for a Dan Flavin at first look. “We used to go to his Halloween parties,” he recalled. “Bit of a grumpy guy.”
As the bell finally rang for chow, we trailed into the big-top-like enclosure. With no obvious logic to the seating, I found myself opposite genial Puerto Rican artist Enoc Perez and his wife, jewelry designer Carole Le Bris. By my side was an aloof benefit regular named Chad, accompanied by a female friend with the flamboyant moniker of Stormy, clearly the target of his interest that night. As artist C. Ryder Cooley performed aerial acrobatics against a projected backdrop, purportedly “invoking visions of human and animal interrelations in response to times of violence and war” but tending more immediately to elicit comparisons with Cirque du Soleil, host Jorn Weisbrodt introduced testimonials from some of Watermill’s other past and current (and future) artists-in-residence. Wildly varied in style and content but uniformly disarming, these veered in one bizarre case into an unexpected and deafening rendition of “That’s the Way I Like It.” Only Robert Wilson himself came close in terms of strangeness, his own speech ending on a non sequitur about Jessye Norman, followed by an out-of-nowhere but heartfelt “Yes, we can!”