NEW YORK (AP) — Leather. Silk. Cheetahs. Stitches. Essential. Touch.
Such is a snippet of spoken soundtrack for an Hermes home goods show brought to life this week by acclaimed theater director and visual artist Robert Wilson in an original installation mixing performances with tableware and leather sofas and chairs.
Titled “Here Elsewhere,” the master of movement, sound and light had three days to transform a Chelsea warehouse space into rooms of unique emotional experiences, beginning with a mirrored entryway punctuated by the rush of the ocean, waves crashing against rocks.
From there, several performers were posed at desks, mute and barely moving, each with a faux tropical bird perched on one shoulder. Nearby, a woman in white, bathed in icy light, was prone and silent on the floor, white feathers strewn around her, a flock of faux blue geese in flight suspended on wires above.
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Wilson, who has designed and directed opera around the globe and created video portraits of the likes of Johnny Depp and Lady Gaga, didn’t stop there.
He shifted moods in another room to set Hermes objects awhirl in 360-degree images shown on walls, going round and round, up and down, then shifted once more, allowing a lone, taut cheetah hunting for prey to move slowly around the room as two women took turns striking poses on a slowly rotating circular platform in the center.
The concept? Wilson’s mind doesn’t work that way. The intrigue, he said in an interview from his nearby studio and home, was in building something from the ground up, as he had learned to do as a young architecture student from Waco, Texas.
“I knew I didn’t want it to look like an Hermes showroom,” he said. “I thought it should be otherworldly.”
It was the 75-year-old Wilson who decided on the sparse words that served as a unique soundtrack and introduction to the luxury housewares of Hermes, including those in a familiar theme for the French company: The animal kingdom.
Wildcats, spider monkeys and parrots from its Carnets d’Equateur porcelain tableware collection are based on sketches of the artist and naturalist Robert Dallet. Leather chairs evoking the company’s roots in saddle and harness making hung from the ceiling with a wooden table.
As for the woman on the floor, the last thing Wilson wanted was to have her reclining on the nearby couch.
“I look at things more abstractly,” he said. “I wanted it to be more like a dream landscape.”
Wilson stretches time. He compresses it. He makes unusual decisions about stillness and sound, having once staged a 12-hour silent opera, “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin.” His “Einstein on the Beach,” a stage collaboration with the composer Philip Glass, takes about five hours to perform.
He rarely takes commercial installations like the one for Hermes, but only “because people just didn’t ask me.” A treat for guests, or perhaps lost in the visuals, was the Glass music Wilson used in the darkened room with the center perch, first occupied by a lone actor in a white-and-gold embellished leotard, then another in a dress of red sequins.
Much of Wilson’s work, stretching back to the 1960s, was silent in the early years, and much is difficult to pigeonhole. He is best known in the theater, his focus always on the details, so where does experimental theater stand today? Is he satisfied?
“Today we’re much more visually aware than we were maybe when I first started,” Wilson said. “When I had my first works in the theater people would say, well it’s not a painting, it’s not dance, it’s not theater, it’s not opera. I think it was a surprise for many people, especially here in the United States.”
Wilson, who travels frequently to work, said he appreciates the craftsmanship of Hermes, which has produced home goods since the 1920s.
Wilson is a fan of a particular home item, chairs. He collects them, cramming about 500 into a Tribeca loft at one point. He often gave chairs special places in his first productions. He traces the interest to his boyhood, when he paid a visit at age 12 on a reclusive uncle who lived in the White Sands Desert of New Mexico. In one room of his sparse adobe house, there was just a chair.
“It was so strange,” Wilson recalled. “It was a wooden chair with a strange back. That was Thanksgiving. At Christmas, he sent me the chair. As a boy in Waco, Texas, I got a pair of cowboy boots, a red flannel shirt, a shotgun, and here was this chair. It was such a surprise.”
He moved all the furniture out of his room, leaving a mattress on the floor to accompany the chair. Fast forward to 18, when his cousin in California called after his uncle’s death.
“My father gave you that chair,” Wilson mimicked. “It’s mine and I want it back.”