I nearly missed it as I was stuck in the White Night crowds: thousands of people looking at pretty lights and pictures on buildings and hoping for adventure on the traffic-free city streets. They might struggle with a show about the art of nothing. I was with them for a while. Where is the art in nothing?
The stage is contained by blue-white light and filled with banners written in upper case hand-painted black letters. They look like sentences, but they are mostly just words. These words become very familiar over the next hour or so. The floor is covered with scrunched up balls of paper that are so evenly spread that someone must know exactly how many balls per square metre of stage.
Wilson, now in his 70s, sits at a desk. Wearing a white linen shirt and pants and white make up, he looks like a character in a Robert Wilson show. Another man, with black and white make up, stands on a level above Wilson’s right under a screen and there’s a bed to Wilson’s left to complete the diagonal line. Their precise movement is easy to miss and the music is less than screeching but heading to an overbearing squeal of two notes.
John Cage (1912-92) was an American composer and theorist. The most-common way into discovering him is in his 1952 composition 4′ 33″. Played or performed on any instrument, it’s four minutes and 33 seconds of silence; I first saw it performed on a toy piano.
It’s the kind of acclaimed genius that makes people scoff at minimalist theatre and love the pretty of White Night adventures. But it’s still performed – a lot. Without Cage, we may not have the likes of Phillip Glass, John Adams, Terry Riley, Michael Nyman, Henryk Górecki or any of the background music I used to play at dinner parties.
Lecture on Nothing (1959) is written like a piece of music, there are pauses and repetition.
It’s as much form as it’s about form, and as much performance as it’s about performance. It floats in that strange space that understands the art as it claims to be ephemeral.
There are plenty of lectures about the lecture, which was published in book – but this is a performance.
Robert Wilson (b 1941) is a theatre director and artists who is best known for Einstein on the Beach, his collaboration with composer Phillip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs. First seen in 1976, it’s a show that lives up to its own legend. We’ve been privileged in Melbourne to have seen Einstein twice and had Wilson’s works feature at Melbourne festivals.
When the music/noise stops, Wilson is alone on the stage. He takes a page from the pile of pages in front of him. It’s a very large pile. As it takes a couple minutes to read each page, there’s a ripple of fear that the 70-minute running time was a lie. Art can lie. Is he really going to read it, like the title says?
It’s odd to have to listen to Robert Wilson theatre. So much of his work is about unspoken communication. Maybe the words really matter this time? Maybe. But soon he’s talking about structure and I’m there.
When I teach, new writers roll their eyes when I tell them that the secret to writing is structure, and that talent, creativity are the maple-flavoured dust on the icing on the cake layered with word play and metaphor. Structure’s my way into understanding and letting go of any understanding about this nothing.
Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing is as earnestly serious as it’s disrespectfully funny. Some people scurry out – I wonder what they expected? – some laugh and others nod in understanding as the refrain of “More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere” becomes profound and totally ridiculous.
If you dig the work of Wilson and Cage, you were probably there and you’ll see it again if you get the chance.
Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 24 August 2019
Image: Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing – photo by Lucie Jansch
Review: Anne-Marie Peard – courtesy of Sometimes Melbourne