Director, set designer, and all-around “theater artist” Robert Wilson can conjure up onstage alternate universes like no other—he just couldn’t tell you where he comes up with them. “Well, you start with one idea, another one, and another,” he told Cultured this week in Venice.
On the occasion of both the 57th annual Venice Biennale and the 25th anniversary of Illy Coffee’s art collection, the 1993 Golden Lion winner came to the Italian capital of canals to unveil yet another immersive design: “The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon: everything you can think of is true,” a showcase of Illy’s more-than-400 espresso cups designed by artists ranging from Marina Abramovic (spotted at the opening) and David Byrne.
The show’s circular, LED-lined opening cuts a portal through a series of surreal environments: a circular pink room with cups embedded into the walls to a pack of wolves among glowing red volcanoes. There’s also an ice-blue landscape where a white tiger waits with an Illy coffee cup on its tongue. “Sequencing spaces to complement each other is like arranging beads on a necklace,” Wilson explained. “We’ll have a black-and-red one, we’ll have a blue one. One is cooler and lighter, one is darker and hotter.”
Passing through these spaces, visitors also encounter suspended TVs, a glowing-eyed panther reclined on a chaise longue, and Illy’s artist commissions, from Sandro Chia’s 1993 design, one of the collection’s first, to Abramovic’s 2002 “Spirit Cup,” lined in gold and punctured near the rim for a scalding-hot surprise.
“When I won the Golden Lion for sculpture here in 1993,” Wilson recalled, “I did a very severe work based on a Mongolian torture device, very minimal, on Giudecca in a warehouse very similar to this space. I wanted to do something completely different—delightful, playful—to characterize the cups together.”
And in contrast to minimalist Mongolian torture, this show actually brims with optimism. From the beginning, the viewer is always moving towards a glimmering horizon in the distance, which, as it turns out in the final room, is a young girl poised on a seaside cliff with wind softly ruffling her red dress. She’s chasing an Illy coffee cup floating just ahead. What happens next is anyone’s guess, because in Wilson’s world, anything is possible.