`SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE'' does an occasional sketch mocking German avant-garde talk shows. The sketch is called ``Sprockets,'' and its host, Dieter, sports a black turtleneck and serious intellectual eyewear. The purpose is to poke holes in the high-intensity, ultra-self-absorbed image of modern artists. I'm not lumping Robert Wilson in with that crowd, but it wouldn't be hard to do a sendup of this enigmatic artist and theater director. He has the look. He has the presence. He has the European suits and the ramrod profile. His movements are as precise as hands on a clock.
On the surface Mr. Wilson's art induces the formal, distancing effect that people associate with modern art's lack of humanity and humility - exactly what Saturday Night Live spoofs on television. But it's clear there's something more to his drawings, sculpture, and sketches. To appreciate his art, it's important to know that Wilson does not create theater that most of us would recognize. He's said that so-called ``naturalistic'' plays that portray ordinary people in recognizable dilemmas - your basic Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, or Lillian Hellman - falsify reality and are highly unnatural.
As Wilson told one reporter, ``I think the more formal theaters, which are full of the artificial, are much more natural. There's more mental space. There's time to reflect, to think. They seem much closer to nature than this theater we call naturalism.''
This is a valuable clue to the Wilson approach. In an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, he has created installations using stage settings, lighting, and props from his past works. The visitor first walks through a long corridor wallpapered in photographic close-ups of tree bark. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves is heard from the sophisticated sound system. Human birdcalls fill the space. It's the farthest thing from a forest, but it quiets the viewer and prepares him for what is to come. It invites contemplation in the same way that a Wilson theater piece may pause in mid-action to let the movement hang suspended, open.
Wilson is adamant about allowing things to happen slowly, deliberately. Some commentators have likened his work to tableau vivant. This was a popular style of theater in the 18th century in which actors/models posed as living paintings. (I have heard actor acquaintances complain that Wilson uses performers like pieces of furniture.) But it could be said, and Wilson has, that everything in modern life - on stage and off - has been speeded up and bears no resemblance to life based in thought.
YOU may not agree with him, but for Wilson, the dream life is a potent thought-force in waking life. Like dreams, the graphite and chalk drawings in the exhibit are indistinct but penetrating. When I closed my eyes, I still saw the drawings. It's similar to when I dream and see something that my mind defines and delineates, but when I wake it eludes me. This ephemeral quality inhabits both Wilson's theater and art, and is inseparable from them.
But Wilson's facility with architecture allows him to give form to the weightless visions and ideas that animate his art. He uses industrial materials for his sculpture: wire mesh, steel, glass, cast lead, and enameled wood. His ``Hanging Chair'' from the show ``The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud'' casts a shadow on the wall as precise as a draftsman's line drawing. The ``Lightbulb'' from the production ``Death, Destruction and Detroit I'' begins as a theatrical emblem and recurs as a spectral charcoal drawing. One art form feeds the other.
My favorite piece of Wilson furniture/sculpture was missing from this show - an elegant, seductive black chaise longue from his 1988 theater piece, ``Quartet,'' but I found a substitute. The wire-mesh couch from the opera ``Parzival'' rivals anything a diva could recline on - ignoring for a moment the grid marks when she got up.
Another quintessential Wilson piece of architecture is a copper-edged water tank from ``A Letter for Queen Victoria.'' The tank sits about 4 and a half feet high, is 6 or 8 feet long, and a couple of feet wide. A smaller version became a fish tank for a scene in ``Quartet.''
Robert Wilson was on hand at the press opening, so I sidled up to him to ask if, in ``Quartet,'' he had intended for the water to slosh at exactly the same angle as the diagonal of his stage set. He laughed politely as if it hadn't occurred to him, and said softly, ``Actually, once this is filled with water, it's a frame to be seen through.'' End of conversation.
I didn't ask him about the ``Quartet'' goldfish. In 1988, I toured backstage at the American Repertory Theater where the show was playing and talked to the technical director about the difficulties of bringing Wilson's ideas to the stage. In rehearsal, it seems, Wilson noticed a filter had been placed on his copper-and-glass sculpture-cum-fishtank. He pointed it out to the crew, complaining that it spoiled the aesthetics and created air bubbles. He was gently told that the fish needed to breathe.
Finally, he and the crew agreed the filter would be taken off just before the tank was brought on stage. (The crew kept replacement goldfish in a big garbage pail and drew a small black cross on the wall when a fish died. There were dozens of crosses.)
This points to the single-minded intensity with which Wilson pursues his calling. It makes him slightly off-putting. It makes his art uncompromising, but also more interesting. He dominates your senses, making you examine time, space, beauty, and relevance. Most of all, the passing of time.
THE final installation of the exhibit has the effect of bracketing time. A life-size adult mannequin in fetal position, encased in a lucite box, travels slowly the length of the wall on a track. Behind the body, a display of small white lights blinks on and off. At the same time, a doll-size chair with a clock above it travels laterally. The body never reaches the end of the wall, although the clock and chair arrive at the bottom.
Surrounded by darkness and the sound of an eerie sea whistle, I felt isolated, even though there were reporters all around me. They too had fallen silent, watching the body inch along the wall. The forlorn noise of a dog barking somewhere in a backyard years away pulled at our collective imaginations.
What a strange thing Robert Wilson has composed, and how unforgettable.
``Robert Wilson's Vision'' runs through April 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts. It travels to Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum June 15-Aug. 18, and then to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 19-Dec. 1.