As we tipped you last week, Belgian’s best Photo Festival is open to visit at the moment and they’ve got a lot to offer. The annual Knokke-Heist Photo Festival has an extensive program dispersed over four different venues around the town. One of their featured artists is American Robert Wilson (b. 1941) who actually hasn’t got any background in photography, which in his case is not a con but a big pro. Wilson is an icon in the international theatre world and thus an experienced choreographer, performer, but also a painter, sculptor and video artist. Since 2004 he is creating video portraits, which express a penchant for theatricality. Wilson uses large, vertical high-definition video screens that have an almost sculptural presence to achieve the sense of theatricality. It seems Wilson wants to tell us that photography is often associated with the passage of time: once printed, the moment has passed forever and only the photo remains. In contrast with the traditional photo portrait there is always movement in Wilson’s portraits. Often the movement is very subtle, and spectators will notice, for example, how the sitter momentarily blinks.
The portraits last between three and twelve minutes but are played in a loop as if they continue infinitely. Wilson mainly portrays well-known personalities, which he depicts in a carefully staged setting among distinctive attributes. At the Knokke-Heist Festival you can for example see Hollywood actor Steve Buscemi in the macabre setting of a slaughterhouse. Or gasp at the leading lady of French cinema, Jeanne Moreau, who is portrayed as Mary, Queen of Scots, while the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov is photographed as Saint Sebastian. Johnny Depp adopts the same attitude as Marcel Duchamp in drag in Man Ray’s famous portrait, while Isabelle Huppert poses as Greta Garbo in the iconic photograph by Edward Steichen. The works are spectacular, and even that might be an understatement. With his video portraits Wilson not only tries to circumvent the limitations of photography as a medium, but also appeals to our collective memory. In so doing, he also examines how icons are created and depicted. But, above all, he portrays his subjects in a highly personal and aesthetic manner.