Take a stroll around Balboa Park and stop by the Timken Museum for the Robert Wilson: Video Portraits exhibit. Starts Feb. 25. Ends May 15. Opening times 10am-4:30pm. For more information contact Kristina Rosenberg.619.239.5548
“It’s so creepy when he breathes.” This isn’t what one expects to hear when standing in the Timken Museum on a chilly Wednesday afternoon. After all, except for the patrons of the museum, art doesn’t usually breathe, not literally.
Yet a tidy man in a brown tweed suit was standing next to me making just such a comment. I took a step closer to the 65 inch high-definition plasma screen mounted on the wall. At first glance it was a portrait of Mikhail Baryshnikov standing against a white pillar, his only clothing a loin cloth that left nothing to the imagination. I admit, I had been staring at the small gash on his left side, at the arrows above his head that appeared to float in place, at everything except the slow rise and fall of his muscled chest. Mostly because, in my preconceived closed minded thoughts on portraits, the subjects in them don’t breathe – not once they are hanging on a wall. Apparently no one told this to Robert Wilson. Famous for his work in the theatre, Wilson set out to create a series of video portraits of famous personalities inspired by great masterpieces of European art. Along with the Baryshnikov piece there are two others in the museum and a larger portrait of famous actress Winona Ryder projected on the south side of the Timken from sundown until 11:00 pm, every evening.
I was unable to see the Winona Ryder portrait as my visit was limited to daylight hours but the docent at the museum said it was quite a sight to see. He informed me that objects slowly arose from the mound of sand in which Ms. Ryder was buried.
My favorite of all the pieces was the portrait of Robert Downey Jr. inspired by Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp (1963, The Hague, Mauritshuis). Mr. Downey lies on a slab of concrete, his left arm raised slightly, the skin removed exposing his nerves, tendons, blood vessels. A cloaked figure points at it with a surgical instrument but never moves. Mr. Downey does breathe occasionally but it is the slight movement of his eyes that is eerie and unnerving. I felt as if he was watching me, waiting for me to help him, save him – but from what, I had no clue.
Each portrait was accompanied by a soundtrack, often with dialogue. The portrait of Jeanne Moreau as Mary Queen of Scots occasionally said the line: “Mary said what she said.” The music that played alongside the stoic, blinking woman was none other than Beethoven.
As I left the museum and stepped out into the bright bustling flutter of life in Balboa Park I found myself wishing that all art was like Robert Wilson’s Video Portraits, a breath of fresh air.