Robert Wilson, 14 Stations (installation view), 2000. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

Robert Wilson

North Adams, MA

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

The best way to appraise art is to immerse oneself in its sensory input without resorting to labels, explanations, and artists’ statements, any of which tend to distract and dilute. A lesson in point is Robert Wilson’s 14 Stations—this writer somehow managed to enter and experience it without even knowing the title, much less its reference. It was terrifying.

In MassMoCA’s cavernous western wing, Wilson erected a dozen identical houselike structures aligned along a central boardwalk, each with no entry but with a small viewing window in front. Each contained sculpture and multimedia imagery, all of it enigmatic. As the viewer approached a window, troubling auditory accompaniments erupted. Had I known the imagery was a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus—indeed was inspired by the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany—I might have been less affected: we expect this story to exude agony and horror. As it was, the installation packed a tremendous emotional wallop, magnified by being unexpected.

A major figure internationally in experimental theatre, Wilson created this work, also called Via Cruces, in collaboration with German designer Stefan Hageneier for an exhibition parallel to the Passion Play in 2000. His intent was to delete common Christian symbols while retaining respect for the traditional story. Like the creator of an opera, Wilson melds all the arts: theater, sculpture, painting, architecture, music, fragments of language. Yet here the viewer enters the stage (the installation) and participates according to his/her own pace and predilections.

Wilson creates his own iconography. For him the horizontal implies time and the vertical space; he designed the installation on the pattern of a cathedral with a long center aisle culminating in a sort of apse with vertical intentions. Wilson has said (one must read artist’s statements to know this) that the cathedral design to him is an analogy for the human body, the entry being the foot, the aisle the body, and the apse the head, realm of the spirit. The houses are meant to isolate each station as a personal experience for each viewer, one at a time.

Robert Wilson, 14 Stations (installation view), 2000. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

A recurring image is the hanging rock, for Wilson an expression of both weight and lightness, menace and escape, and perhaps the duality of all things. In one version the rock, rotating like a planet, is pierced with a tube; as the mouth (muzzle?) of the tube approaches the viewer, the tube projects a light—which is extinguished just before one can see into it. Mixing his media without constraint, Wilson is never troubled by any thoughts of consistency of style. The human figure may be represented by tiny, stick-like pegs, or life-sized manikins carved by German craftsmen, or a face projected on a blowing curtain, or a projected naked form crawling across the floor. It’s hard to tell whether this is a deliberate attempt to keep the viewer mentally off-balance or simply an unrestrained fecundity of ideas.

The stations, ranging bafflingly from the abstract to the theatrical, are so loosely linked to the customary stations of the cross as to send one scurrying to find exactly what the customary stations are. The most beautiful one, in which a lighted glass pipe filled with bubbling fluid pierces a bed, represents the crucifixion itself. Thoroughly enigmatic, it suggests fulfillment, an end to threat, perhaps Jesus’ acceptance of his fate. Yet the very next station (representing his death) is realistic and harsh, a diorama of snarling red wolves against a backdrop of Alpine mountains—perhaps a comment that, despite his sacrifice, the world remains the same, beautiful, and cruel.

At the far end of the boardwalk a white figure is hung upside down against a cone of stacked branches, like a pyre. Even after I learned the theme of the installation it remained a paradox, alluding simultaneously to crucifixion, martyrdom, and ascension. Wilson’s intent is not to explain but to retain a sense of mystery, and so he does.