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August 3, 2011 11:57 AM

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The Shock of the New

It must be said that I am historically a fan of any event that involves outlandish large-scale contraptions, mild body endangerment, attractive lighting, the out-of-doors and unlimited comestibles. Anyone familiar with the Watermill Center's annual summer benefit gala (and this...

It must be said that I am historically a fan of any event that involves outlandish large-scale contraptions, mild body endangerment, attractive lighting, the out-of-doors and unlimited comestibles. Anyone familiar with the Watermill Center's annual summer benefit gala (and this year marks the 18th) knows that it ticks a lot of those boxes. While there was an incredible volume and variety of art experiences happening all over the grounds, I'd really like to reflect on one: my accidental near-decapitation of a mostly-buried performance artist.

At one point halfway through the sun-dappled leaves and suddenly smoke-filled space between the tree-trunks in the wooded grounds of the Watermill Center, I nearly kicked a man (whom I now know to be acclaimed artist Ryan McNamara) in the head. He was buried up to his chin in woodchips and dirt, and was crooning soulfully to a compatriot, buried about two arms lengths away. McNamara's hair is sort of a light tawny brown or a very dirty blonde and his skin was lightly tanned, so he looked sort of like the woodchips or a very small stump. Nonetheless, it was sincerely discomforting to have almost killed him via my studded motorcycle boots.

Apparently this had or had nearly happened a lot, because McNamara didn't flinch or stop singing what sounded like a lullaby, only sweetly off-key and very slowly, allowing me to survey the crown of his head from the distance of the height of an average American woman looking down at the ground.

The overall effect was one of genuine surprise, which cannot be overvalued. I was quite literally stopped in my tracks by a piece of performance art. More so than by a hirsute nude pair who struggled nearby on a platform, dragging a microphone around the supine figure of the submissive partner, or by the quasi-poetry jam session happening even farther into the woods, or the glass and mirrored box filled with smoke. I was very much a fan of the musical steamroller and the girls bathing in glitter that it circled, the former for ingenuity, the latter for fearlessness (the dress code of the evening), but neither had the effect that literally stumbling across McNamara did.

It seemed somehow notable that in this day and age, when the fashion and art and music industries seem to have done and seen everything, that one can still be surprised. And McNamara did it by almost disappearing into the earth.

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