Robert Wilson for Villa Panza. Tales

The exhibition Robert Wilson for Villa Panza. Tales marks another stage in the complex relationship developed by the FAI - Fondo Ambiente Italiano with the multiform identity of the Villa Panza collection. Widely known for his work with important musicians like Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach), Lou Reed (Lulu), Tom Waits (The Black Rider) and David Byrne (The Knee Plays) as well as writers and poets of the Beat Generation like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the American artist visited Villa Panza before developing the concept of the exhibition. The result is a rich and complex project with a wealth of more or less explicit references to the history of art. In addition to a selection of Video Portraits in the rooms of the villa, the exhibition extends to the grounds with an evocative permanent installation entitled A House for Giuseppe Panza, a tribute to the Milanese collector who lived there and created the museum. The decision to host an exhibition by the multifaceted Texan artist, one of the greatest masters of the contemporary video and performance culture, is motivated by the subtle affinities between his simultaneously visionary and minimalist art and the ethical and aesthetic vision of Giuseppe Panza. Panza conceived the creation and arrangement of his collection as an intellectual adventure and a spiritual trajectory affording access to the dimension of infinity. The large-scale installations brought to Varese in the 1970s were among the most mature expressions of his idealistic and universal aspirations.

Combining the stillness of portraiture with slow, continuous mutation, Robert Wilson’s high-definition Video Portraits are separately installed in the rooms of the villa so as establish a specific dialogue with the spaces, the furnishings and the art collection in every case.

Celebrated figures from the worlds of art and show business alternate with members of the animal kingdom, mostly under threat of extinction, in a spectacular gallery of inventions that meld the image of various contemporary icons with icons of the recent past and historical masterpieces of art.

The largest series, which occupies the entire south wing of the first floor of the villa, is the set of Lady Gaga Portraits, a major project of 2013 exhibited the same year at the Louvre in Paris and now presented for the first time in Italy. The portraits of the American singer-songwriter refer to three famous paintings of the past connected in different ways with the idea of death: the Portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière (1806) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the image of a prematurely deceased adolescent; the very well-known Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David, an uncompromising depiction of the instant after the assassination of the French revolutionary; and the Head of John the Baptist (1507) by Andrea Solari, a follower of Leonardo. This small painting, now in the Louvre, is characterized by marked contrast of light and shadow and the virtuoso handling of reflections.
From the sophisticated modulation of the blues in the background of the first two images to the elegance of the dominant black in the long sequence inspired by Solari, Robert Wilson shows just why he has rightly been described as a "master of light" capable of putting forward a constant stream of inventions with simultaneously natural and theatrical effects. As he once stated, "Light is ... something that’s architectural ... like an actor." Wilson describes the Video Portraits as "mental landscapes" or "windows" and emphasizes their close relationship with his work in theatre. As he explains, there is indeed a sort of direct quotation of theatre in some of them.

For the second parterre of the grounds, establishing a dialogue between the 19th-century architecture of the Empire Salon and the monumental magnolia, Wilson designed the site-specific installation A House for Giuseppe Panza, built of larch wood in the American Shaker style and measuring 7.46 m in length, 2.65 in width and 5.30 in height.
Inside the house, visible through the windows but inaccessible to the visitor, Wilson has created a sort of tableau vivant inspired by the life of Giuseppe Panza: a chair with a very tall back and a large book lying open on a long table of natural wood with the resin cast of an arm suspended over its pages. His beloved minimalist style and poetics of the fragment reign in a timeless dimension of abeyance.

The backdrop of the garden, the sober lines of the house and the paradoxical interplay of lighting (the lights inside the house are of a cold blue colour) create an atmosphere of spatiotemporal abeyance and a sense of defamiliarization and surprise reminiscent of the visual oxymoron created by Magritte in paintings like L'Empire des Lumières, where day and night coexist in a same scene as though born out of a dream and its laws.

The soundtrack by the American composer Michael Galasso for the Lady Gaga Portraits also accompanies A House for Giuseppe Panza, spreading out into the grounds, together with an audio recording of Wilson reading some lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929). The sound of his voice and the words of the German poet live in the house, repeated ritually like a mantra.

An exhibition to be experienced in silence and contemplation, completely immersed in works subtly balanced between time, space and poetry.