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Robert Wilson's still lives in motion (barely)

Theater legend Robert Wilson's new exhibit at the University of Iowa aims to pioneer a new breed of plasma portraiture.

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The first thing one notices is the stillness. Many visitors to the opening night gala at the museum thought the images were still photographs, until the subject blinked or moved a finger.

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Susan Karlman, a museum patron, says she spent a long time staring at a portrait of an auto mechanic, before picking up on a host of tiny movements.

"All of a sudden it started to teeter a little bit back and forth and I wasn't sure if it was me or the picture," she says. "Then, a short while later, it started blinking. So I thought, okay, it's not just me!"

It's these subtleties that Wilson, a career artist, is trying to capture.

"Sometimes, when we're very, very still, we're more aware of movement than when we make a lot of movement outwardly," Wilson says. "So these portraits are exploring this inner movement. It's about a way of listening inside."

Theatre icon of the world stage, Wilson's oeuvre spans from the ground-breaking Philip Glass opera, "Einstein on the Beach" (1976) and hip musical "The Black Rider" (William S. Burroughs and Tom Waits) to classic works of Shakespeare and Wagner's operas. His style is marked by controlled movement and stillness within movement – beauty contained and delineated through formal lines and shapes, Wagnerian in scope but containing John Cage's sensibility for silence.

Raised in Waco, Texas, Wilson dropped out of business school in Austin to study architecture at the Pratt Institute in New York City. The career change came after listening to a lecture by the United Nations economist Noel Muno, who discussed the importance of art to the cultural life of nations. Wilson has since directed projects world-wide, working with performers throughout Europe, Norway, the Middle East, and even Bali.

"My work has always dealt with a kind of space that allows one to daydream... to go to a space that's quiet, that's more meditative," Wilson says during an interview here at the University of Iowa. "People are looking for more of those kinds of spaces as alternatives" to mainstream media.

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