March 15th, 2007 | Tags:

by Ali Hossaini

At the 30,000 sq. ft. Phillips de Pury gallery in New York, a gorgeous whirl of sound enveloped those viewing the VOOM Portraits by Robert Wilson. Sound plays a huge part in the exhibition, and the blend, the whir, the mix of music to murmurs, Ethel Merman to Tom Waits, monologues to rhymes, underscore the fantastic, dreamy, other-worldly videos of the very famous, the very beautiful, and the very funny.

Robert Wilson, one of the most exciting and influential innovators in theater, art and design, has been working with us at VOOM HD Networks as Artist-in-Residence since 2004 to create the VOOM Portraits. VOOM, owned by Rainbow Media and Cablevision, is a pioneer of high definition entertainment, with 15 channels in the U.S. and a fast-growing global presence. We commi ssioned Wilson to explore the creative frontiers of the HD medium, culminating in 36 highdef productions so far, with the project ongoing.

Familiar with his work since childhood, I knew Wilson would showcase HD by combining art and technology in ways we couldn’t imagine. We chose to do celebrity portraits, as they lend a naturally larger-than-life presence, and HD allows life-size TV for the first time. Wilson – a master at stretching creative boundaries – interweaves playful references to theater, opera, music and painting, to create an artful experience intimating what the future of television and home theater can be. And that was our goal.

Wilson developed each portrait in collaboration with his subjects, including Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp, Monaco’s Princess Caroline of Hanover, Robert Downey, Jr., Isabelle Huppert, Isabella Rossellini, Alan Cumming, Willem Dafoe, Dita von Teese, and others.

Shown first in galleries on each coast, the project is a groundbreaking venture that merges art with television. Reviewed in The New York Times by Jonathan Kalb, (Jan.30, 2007), the writer singled out Wilson’s “stunningly beautiful video of Winona Ryder,” which he states is “…to be considered one of his most penetrating theatrical creations.” At 17 ft. x 31 ft., it is the largest video projection of any of the portraits and was on exhibit in a joint show at the Paula Cooper Gallery.

Most of the portraits are on 42” and 65” monitors. We decided to project Winona Ryder at such a dramatic size because her portrait is the most story-based, as the character Winnie from the play “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett. The native resolution of 1920 x 1080i is fine enough that it still holds up at this size.

We used the advanced tools of HD, such as color correction as we were shooting, on the fly. Each piece had about a week of post-production, where we adjusted motion and contours and created even more vibrant colors.

This is seen most fully in the Isabella Rossellini portrait, based on Japanese manga, where we added many childlike facial expressions and sounds to the usually elegant and composed actress.

The video portraits run in seamless infinite loops, and are shot in horizontal format for television and cinema, and vertically for gallery presentation on HD plasma flat-screen monitors. The resulting images appear to be still photographs. On closer inspection, they reveal Wilson’s signature language of minimalist movement. In yet a new medium, Robert Wilson displays his unparalleled ability to change the way we see.

With its next stop at the ACE Gallery in Los Angeles, the show will tour internationally prior to broadcast of the portraits, planned for Fall 2007 on VOOM’s art channel, Gallery HD.  

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