Design Lessons From Theater Legend Robert Wilson


The architecture-trained polymath discusses the importance of designing for different senses, the problem with “America First,” and his latest project: an exhibition on Chinese antiquities at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]
[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]
[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]


Is there any artistic medium that the legendary avant-garde theater guru Robert Wilson hasn’t tackled? As it turns out, exhibition design is one of them.

[Photo: Yiorgos Kaplanidis/courtesy Robert Wilson]

At age 76, Wilson has collaborated with some of the most critically celebrated minds of our time—among them Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and Marina Abramovic—and is himself a trained architect who has taken on dance, choreography, playwriting, painting, video, sculpture, set design, sound, and lighting. In his five-decade career, Wilson has been the subject of many museum exhibitions (and has also guest curated others, including a 2013 show at the Louvre), and helms a performing arts laboratory, the Watermill Center, which he founded in 1991.

Which makes it all the more exciting to hear that Wilson’s latest project, Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson, opening this week (through May 24) at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, charters slightly new territory for the artist—working as an exhibition designer.

The show of Chinese antiquities promises to be far and away from your ordinary period room at the Met, if we’ve come to expect anything from Wilson’s experimental work and mastery of the stage. The museum has said it involves 10 immersive rooms, an original soundscape, elements of scent, and plenty of multisensory “counterpoints,” as Wilson says. Here, the multi-hyphenate artist shares how he approaches exhibition design, the power of our senses, and the virtues of approaching “experience as a way of thinking.”

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]

Fast Company: You’ve designed the exhibition into 10 rooms, with plenty of sensorial elements—what was your starting point in deciding to structure it this way?Robert Wilson: I studied architecture, so I tend to think more architecturally. If I don’t know what a space looks like, it’s very difficult for me to decide what to do. And it’s the same if I’m writing an opera or writing a play, or if I’m designing a work for the theater: I start with the light first, because light is what creates the space.

It seemed to me that number two and even numbers are key to Chinese architecture and philosophy, in my limited understanding of it. So I started with the rooms that were given to me, divided it into 10 spaces, and thought about how these 10 spaces could mirror each other, or be seen as counterpoints to one another. It progresses from a dark room to a light room, to a room with one object, to a room with 1,500 objects; and materially, a room covered in straw, a room in metal, and a room in mud.

In one of the rooms, I have a big foot-and-a-half square metal plate that covers the floor and walls. I also have stone sculptures, and I have the smell of straw. So I’m smelling one thing, I’m seeing another, and I’m in an all-metallic room, and I’m looking at a 5th- or 6th-century stone Buddha—it’s structuring all of those things together. Counterpoint is very difficult to do: It’s not taking any opposite, but it’s trying to find the right opposite. One thing helps me see another, because their nature is very different.

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]

FC: Would you say that bringing in those sensorial components speaks to making art more accessible, more visceral?RW: I think so. Usually in institutions, exhibitions are often, in some ways, very flat—they lack other dimensions. There was a beautiful exhibition the other summer at the Met on Chinese antiquities, but somehow it was very institutional and conventional. I think it’s very important, with whatever you do, that a child can get something out of it. Often when I’m directing a play or something, I’ll tell the performers that. And it’s very important that the man on the street can go in and experience something. And if somebody else is doing what we’re doing, there’s no reason for us to do it—it should be a different experience.

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]

FC: With your heavy involvement in theater, directing, and set design, how do you feel that the exhibition design relates to performance?RW: I was very fortunate that in my first year in school, studying architecture, I heard Louis Kahn speak. And he said, “Students, I always start with light first.” And to hear that was just, wow. After all those years in school, it was one of the things that made the most sense to me. That’s where he started: He started with light first. So, whether I’m directing Wagner’s Lohengrin, or Shakespeare’s King Lear, or my own opera that I made with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, designing an exhibition at the Louvre museum with pieces from their collection, or creating video portraits of Lady Gaga, I approach it all pretty much the same way. I start with light, and I think of light first.

What I love about theater is that it brings together all the arts: architecture, painting, light, dance, music. I love the fact that it’s live, and that even though you’re doing the same thing every night, it’s always something completely different. That sequence of sounds will never happen again. The only thing that’s constant is change. That’s what’s exciting about theater—even though you’re doing the same thing every night more or less, it’ll always be different. To me, too much of art is too intellectual, and what’s most important is what we experience. To experience something is a way of thinking.

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]

FC: In addition to mastering spatial and visual mediums over the years—you work heavily with the ephemeral variable of time. How does it all tie together in your mind?RW: Time is space, and space is time. One can’t exist independently. People have said that in my work, one moves slower, one takes more time. To me, time is something you experience, and it’s not an intellectual thing, but it’s something constructed, and so you make decisions. It’s a time-space construction.

I’m working, in this case, with sound, smell—which is the strongest sense, most tied to memory—and with light. There are only two lines in the world: a straight line and a curved line. That’s all. In some of the spaces here, you will walk around the perimeter of the space because there’s something in the center. Some spaces are divided like a forest, with no clear path, and you can go in any way. Some spaces you probably are going to pass through more quickly than with others. So it’s a construction of time and space.

[Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art]

FC: On a broader, cultural level, what do you hope people take away from this exhibition?RW: Artists and the public are beginning to be more visually and culturally aware, whether it’s in the way we show history in textbooks, or engage with one another, we understand one another more and more by what we see. Unfortunately, with our current president, this idea of “America First”—we get cut off. What is going on with the mausoleums in Indonesia? What is going on in Afghanistan? What is going on in the rest of the world that you have to be aware of, here in New York City? How provincial can we be? It’s shocking. If we want a strong nation, culturally speaking, then we have to inform ourselves on what’s happening on the other side of the world, and we need an open-door policy.

So I’ve invited young contemporary Chinese artists to participate in these environments that I set up—a sequence of rooms—as they show their work as a counterpoint to these antiquities. The only thing, or one of the few things, that’s going to last 5,000 years from now will be what artists are doing. Artists are the records, and the diaries, and the journals of our time. And if we don’t support it, we lose it. And if we lose our culture, we lose our memory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article first appeared in

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