The Palazzo Madama in Turin is one of the most historically resonant buildings in the north of Italy: originally a Roman gate, then a medieval fort, it was turned into the home of the royal dowagers of Savoy in the 18th century. Today, it is a splendid museum, housing art from many periods but lauded in particular for its Baroque collection.
Here is that overwrought art form in all its opulent glory, with its vibrant colours, playful putti, busty duchesses and virginal youths plucking feyly at their harps. But there is an interloper amid the bombardment of coyness and curlicues: the still, menacing figure of Brad Pitt, transmitted on a large high-definition video screen, standing in nothing but socks and boxer shorts, holding a pistol. The figure is bathed in blue and barely moves. It is raining, and he is soaking wet.
After a few minutes, there is a more pronounced movement: Pitt slowly raises the pistol and aims it straight at the viewer. He finally shoots, and a spray of water comes out of the gun. It is a joke, one of the oldest in the book, but Pitt remains unsmiling. The video loop starts all over again.
“Counterpoint,” says veteran theatre director Robert Wilson in a press conference later in the day, as he is explaining what the work is doing in such improbable surroundings. “It is all about counterpoint. If you take a Baroque commode and put a Baroque clock on top of it, maybe it is not so interesting as when you put a computer on top of it. Then you see both items in a new way.”
The piece is one of 45 video works by Wilson in the museum, each nestling a little uneasily among their 18th-century antecedents. Pitt is not the only celebrity helping Turin’s notoriously conservative public see the city’s treasures afresh. There are similar portraits, taken over the past eight years, of Johnny Depp, Macaulay Culkin, Salma Hayek, Isabella Rossellini. Some of them are twinned with works that are visually related. An 1860 portrait of a Piedmontese painter bears a striking resemblance to Depp, louchely attired in a yellow fur coat against a vivid magenta background.
“Counterpoint is difficult,” Wilson continues over coffee in the museum’s smart café. “I have been doing it since the beginning of my career. But it is not just taking any opposite. It is finding the right opposite.”
The attraction of opposites fuelled Wilson’s startling avant-garde work back in the 1960s and 1970s. Born in Waco, Texas (“no art galleries, no museums”), he says he was drawn to New York’s thriving downtown scene at the same time as wanting to break away from it.
“There was this show at the Whitney that was a summation of what had happened in the 1960s, and it was called Anti-Illusion. I started to think, ‘Wait, what’s so wrong with illusion? With the 19th-century box, where things are beautiful on one side, and the other side is hidden?’ ”
Wilson wanted his pioneering early works to be in “boulevard theatres”, not tucked away in semi-obscurity, catering for cult followings. “I went to the National Endowment for the Arts and said I wanted to put on A Letter for Queen Victoria [a 1974 play] on Broadway. They said it was ridiculous, and that it should be in a loft downtown. But I wanted to be in the mainstream of theatre.”
He ended up renting a theatre uptown himself. “It was a disaster, commercially, critically. A little blue-haired lady came to see it in New Jersey. She left after 20 minutes and said to the usher, ‘Honey, I know it’s a turkey, but what does it mean?’ ”
But Wilson’s taste for the mainstream did not recede, and his next venture became one of the most famous acts of impresario bravado in postwar cultural history: he rented the Metropolitan Opera for two nights to put on a five-hour, non-narrative opera composed by his friend Philip Glass, with choreography by Lucinda Childs. “I thought I would go for broke,” he says.
The opera was Einstein on the Beach, and it was a remarkable success. “Tickets were priced from $2 to $2,000. And I put the $2 tickets next to the $2,000 tickets. It sold out immediately. And it made Phil’s career.” (A recent revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has also just performed to full houses.)
“Suddenly you had this downtown crowd that had never been to this stuffy old house,” Wilson says. He became “sort of hooked” on counterpoint, and has been jarring audiences with unlikely juxtapositions ever since. “I think it’s good to mix things up,” he concludes, lest we hadn’t noticed.
What, I ask, about this particular counterpoint? What did this super-modern director make of the clunky drama of Baroque art? There is a long silence. “It is something I am getting into,” he says gently, and begins to talk enthusiastically on another of his favourite subjects: light. “Four days ago I was talking to some architecture students. I was shocked because no one was thinking about light. I said, ‘Stop! Go back to light. Start with light.’ Because without light, there is no space.” He waves around him. “And this is so beautiful.”
In Einstein on the Beach, he says, “light is architectural. It is sculptural. People said it was very avant-garde. There is no narrative but there is theme and variation.” He takes a piece of paper and draws the thematic pattern of the opera. “It is a classical structure. Yes, you get lost. But it is really OK to get lost. People are so afraid that the audience will get lost. So much of what I see in the theatre demands a response. Let the public go! It’s fine.”
Wilson celebrates his 71st birthday next week but there is no let-up in a frantic schedule, nor in the range and variety of his work. Recent projects, apart from the UK premiere of Einstein at the Barbican, have included “Walking”, a theatrical/architectural walk along the Norfolk coastline in eastern England, and an acclaimed performance in Krapp’s Last Tape at the inaugural International Beckett Festival at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.
“I met Beckett a couple of times. I admired his work so much, especially seeing Happy Days with [French actress] Madeleine Renaud. I said to him that she was so great, and Beckett said, ‘The reason she was so great was that she didn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but her timing was impeccable.’
“We were talking about actors, and we agreed that our favourite actor was Buster Keaton. This was in the 1970s, and he told me that if he could have had Buster Keaton in all his plays, it would have been a dream. Because timing is everything in Beckett. And it is also so important to keep the lightness, keep the humour.”
“In Krapp’s Last Tape, 52 minutes pass before I speak. It is not easy to stand on stage. You have to learn it. It is the first lesson in drama: how to stand, how to walk. I did a masterclass at the Juilliard and asked the students, ‘Can you stand?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Can you walk?’ ‘Sure.’ They couldn’t. They had never really thought about it. You have to trust the silence. If you don’t trust it, it will never work.”
Trusting the silence: another Wilson imperative. “I did a Winterreise with Jessye Norman in Paris; it was a few days after 9/11. She said, ‘I can’t sing, I can’t stop crying.’ I said, ‘You have to sing, this is when we must have your voice.’ She said OK, she would do it. She started and after four songs, she stopped and started to cry. And she just stood there, until the tears stopped. And then she just stood ... ”
Wilson keeps completely still, erect head to one side, “ ... for about 10 minutes. This Nubian queen! And the audience just started to weep. The power, the depth of emotion!
“The silence was more beautiful than when she was singing. It’s not easy but you have to trust the silence.”
‘Robert Wilson: Portraits at Palazzo Madama’, until January 6 2013