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Robert Wilson exhibit explores themes of life an death


At the Museum of Fine Arts.

Continues through April 21.



NOT ARTISTIC, but rather intellectual expression, is the true motivation behind the Robert Wilson retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts. Sound, light effects and visual media provide ample food for thought, although an intellectual approach is not the only route to this exhibit's consumption. Three distinct rooms are linked together as a collective sensory experience, and anyone walking through can be goaded into reflection because of the sheer variety of Wilson's objects and use of space.

Before entering the exhibit proper, the visitor walks through a tunnel that works to first offset and then prime the visitor for the esoteric flavor of the rest of the exhibit. Photographs of decayed statues line one wall, while the other wall is a conspicuously dull gray. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a cemetery.

Yet with statue photos that possess certain human characteristics and intrusive chirping sounds, the entrance way acts as a direct confrontation to the visitor. Walked through quickly, the tunnel gives the effect of stop-action photography, with glimpses of side-turned heads and half-dead gazes. The darkness of the tunnel and its imagery of a sculpture garden in ruins affords it a soothing effect to counteract its unnerving one. This theme of paradox is one that Wilson develops in the exhibit throughout.

The tunnel branches out into a white, open room filled with objects. The whiteness represents innocence, day, or perhaps birth. Objects range in size and take the form of chair, statue, door, and placard. The space is arranged so that visitors can walk around or underneath and, in general, get very close to Wilson's objects. Notably, some of these objects are stage props created with the intent of eliciting reactions from an audience.

The experience is a frank one: Curiosity and wonder were common reactions. The intermittent sounds of bells clanging and glass breaking enhanced the distraction and rapture.

The organizing principle in the second room is formality. Again, Wilson incorporated his theme of involving the visitor through sound and visual experience. Harpsichord music complemented snazzy framed sketches in a SoHo gallery-type of arrangement.

In the center of the room resides what has been billed as the exhibit's main attraction, "Memory of a Revolution." Enclosed in a small room with seating for six, "Memory of the Revolution" represents the bizarre history of the Place de la Bastille. During the French Revolution, the famous 14th-century Bastille fortress and prison was ransacked. Napoleon erected a three-story-high plaster elephant in its place. After Napoleon's demise, an old Bonapartist was sent to live in one of the elephant's legs and act as caretaker. The place gradually became overrun with rats and was torn down in 1846. Recently, an opera house was erected on the site to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. All of this is depicted in Wilson's piece.

Unfortunately, with gimmicks like moving fingers on the caretaker and an overpopulation of artificial rats, "Memory of a Revolution" seems more like a Disneyland attraction than a museum one. This small room contained all the elements of what Wilson specializes in -- dramatic lighting, emotionally-involving sound, and interactive sculpture; yet the setup of the room did not work. The placement of the chairs takes away from the lighting effects, the opera music is not loud enough, and basically, the experience is not engulfing enough for the interactive sculpture to achieve its intended effect.

Last in Wilson's guided retrospective is the black room, the least likable because of its artificiality. For this room to be effective, it would have to have been climactic. One of the dangers for any artist is to arrange a chronological sequence, such as Wilson did with birth, life experience and death. Death and the unknown are powerful themes upon which to comment, and Wilson trivialized them by linking them to a theme of high technology.

The wire-propelled, foot-long rocket ship, flashing lights, and moody, glowing furniture are more reminiscent of The Sharper Image than of an art exhibit. There was nothing particularly innovative or meaningful in this room, even with angry language, screams of anguish, and thunderclaps reverberating throughout the room. Upon entering, people stood like dumbfounded tourists, staring at the lights, while attempting to find the installation's "profound meaning."

Overall, the Wilson exhibit was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Like other esoteric art installations, it inspires the viewer to draw comparisons, if not conclusions, about personal life experiences. For each person, Robert Wilson's Vision should be a unique exploration into the degree of comfort with the transition from life into death.

Coincidentally, Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, directed by Wilson and now playing at the American Repertory Theatre, focuses on the fine line between being alive and being dead. One thing that anyone who knows about Wilson will appreciate is his robustness in experimentation.

It is precisely those combinations of passive with interactive, absurdity with depth, and the jarring with the absorbing that encourage the conventional museum-goer to stretch his or her limits of artistic appreciation.