‘To have coffee in a cup like this makes the experience special,’ muses Robert Wilson. A master of drama and design, the American stage director is standing among 400 cups that Italian coffee brand Illycaffé has produced – 111 artist collaborations and counting – over the past 25 years.
Illy’s instantly recognisable red logo was painted by the late pop art pioneer James Rosenquist in 1992. The forward-thinking coffee company has also accrued an impressive art collection, so for the 57th Venice Biennale it enlisted Wilson to put its artist-designed cups centre stage.
‘I don’t think I’m very good at explaining my work,’ says a bashful Wilson, ‘but it is something you experience. When I saw this whole line of coffee cups – they are all very different! – I started thinking about the caterpillars in Alice in Wonderland, and “everything you can think of is true” and I thought, here we are.’
The sensorial exhibition – which takes its protracted title from the last line in a Mother Goose poem – is staged across seven rooms in a Venetian warehouse (restored and renovated by Renzo Piano) on Dorsoduro. The show opens with a deceptively plain display of cups. Inside, sounds of splattering rain and roaring Siberian tigers emanate through the space; in each room a different lighting and beastly conceptual scheme unfolds (think rabbits, tigers, and jaguars).
Installation view of ‘The dish ran away with the spoon everything you can think of is true’
‘Many ideas, many artists, many aesthetics coming together for one single image of a cup,’ says Wilson. There, embedded in the walls are delightful configurations by a veritable Who’s Who of artists: a cobalt ensemble with a cut saucer by Daniel Buren; a double-handle design with an alien face from David Byrne; a mirrored vessel from Michelangelo Pistoletto; and a signature void by, who else, Anish Kapoor.
And then there’s Marina Abramović. ‘Marina is the Mad Hatter, so be careful!,’ quips Wilson. Her creation – a pierced cup – beckons the avant-garde. ‘When you see [the cups] all together it’s playful,’ adds Wilson, ‘It’s like arranging beads on a necklace.’
In fact, Wilson’s last spin in Venice was in 1993 when he won the Golden Lion for sculpture. The piece in question was ‘performed in Giudecca in a warehouse very similar to this. I did a “very serious and severe installation” based on Mongolian torture and the texts of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and called it Loss.’
Returning to a familiar context in an almost identical environment prompted Wilson to ‘do something completely different. Like two worlds – not heaven and hell, but they’re one world, two hands, one body, two sides of the brain. This is a counterpoint to what I did before.’
And if Loss was moody and contemplative, than this new exhibition is the opposite. It’s a brilliantly bonkers journey through Wilson’s imagination. ‘Thank you Alice, for letting me fall into the rabbit hole,’ says Wilson. A mad tea party for all.