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Celebrating 25 years of collaborative work

June 30, 2015

The Wexner Center for the Arts closed its 25th anniversary season with a transformative performance by world-renowned artist and Ohio State professor Ann Hamilton and critically heralded SITI Company. Collaborations like this are what the Wex does best — and give Ohio State a stellar reputation beyond Columbus.

At first blush, the theater is a blank page is not the easiest sell.

First is the performance piece’s length: approximately three hours. Then there’s the work’s narrative- and description-defying premise: to reflect on the experience of reading and the apparatus of theater with Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To the Lighthouse.

Yet theatergoers came in droves April 23-26 to the premiere at Mershon Auditorium, selling out each performance — and even the technical and dress rehearsals in advance of the work’s official debut.

the theater is a blank page represents a signature moment in the center’s 25th Anniversary Season, a season that featured several projects reacquainting audiences with innovative artists who have longstanding relationships with the Wex, including world-renowned artist and Ohio State professor Ann Hamilton and critically heralded SITI Company. Fittingly, given the Wexner Center’s multidisciplinary nature, the collaboration between Hamilton and SITI drew on Hamilton’s conceptual, visual art-based approach and SITI’s skilled theater-making.

In all, Hamilton and SITI spent three weeks at the Wexner Center shaping and then debuting the work. Rather than a linear telling of Woolf’s work, the theater is a blank page saw the text used in multiple ways. It is read from beginning to end by the Reader, who unspools an abridged version of the book that has been printed on white strips of fabric and then wound around a film reel.

A critic with Columbus Underground called it “one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.” On Twitter, Denison theatre professor Mark Evans Bryan described the theater is a blank page as “lovely and joyful, both huge and wonderfully intimate, just beautiful.” 

Home away from NYC

Hamilton, an internationally celebrated visual artist, is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Art. Since her inclusion in one of the Wexner Center’s inaugural exhibitions (New Works for New Spaces, 1990-91), Hamilton has touched all of the Wex’s program areas.

In addition to participating in multiple exhibitions at the center (including a 1996 career retrospective), she has collaborated with choreographer Meg Stuart and multidisciplinary visionary Meredith Monk in the center’s Performing Arts program, and she pursued her interest in video with the support of the center’s Film/Video Studio program.

Hamilton says programming by Chuck Helm, Wexner Center director of performing arts, “exposed me and introduced me to all sorts of work that I wouldn't necessarily have known or that would have been more difficult for me to see in New York. And the same is true in film/video, that my exposure to experimental film and also the technical support of that area within the Wexner has made so much of the last 20 years of my work possible.”

Longtime Wex favorites, SITI also have been aided by multiple creative residencies at the center, which resulted in the premieres here of Bob (1998), Alice’s Adventures (1998), Room (2000), Score (2002) and Death and the Ploughman (2004).

“We first came to the Wexner with The Medium, which was the second show we ever made — and the first one that sort of defined us — so there never has been a SITI Company without the Wexner. It's been a symbiotic relationship from the very beginning of our history,” says SITI co-artistic director and company member Leon Ingulsrud.

Since SITI does not have a dedicated performance space at its home in New York City, it relies on places such as the Wex to provide a venue for staging its productions. Anne Bogart, a founding member of the 23-year-old ensemble theater company for which she serves as a co-artistic director, says the Wex and Ohio State “have become a home” to the ensemble.

Ann Hamilton, Anne Bogart
World-renowned artist and Distinguished University Professor Ann Hamilton with Anne Bogart of SITI Company

“You can't make art in New York City. It's such a busy place, there are always things to do and you can't concentrate,” Bogart says. “We love coming to OSU, we love coming to the Wexner because we can actually spend several weeks doing nothing but working on the play."

True to its mission

Hamilton and SITI’s individual experiences are emblematic of the Wexner Center’s core commitment to being a laboratory for artists’ creative exploration across all disciplines and a destination for audiences to witness the creative process in action.

Since the center’s birth in 1989, Wex residencies and commissions have helped artists — spanning all disciplines and crossing the globe — create new work and explore new ways of art-making, complementing Ohio State’s mission as a leading research institution.

Helm says that the center’s position as the country’s only university-based multidisciplinary contemporary art center gives it a particular responsibility. The center, he says, should be a catalyst in making contemporary art by partnering with artists.

“We conceived the (Wexner Center Artist Residency Award) program, where we basically ask notable artists doing significant projects what their needs are to realize their creative aims, and we try to match as much of our resources — or the university’s resources, and sometimes even the community’s resources — to create this new work,” Helm says.

“That new work of course goes on tour and spreads the name of the Wexner Center and OSU around the globe.”

Works produced with Wexner Center support typically make their premiere here, and many will go on to travel to venues around the world. While there’s no official word yet on where the theater is a blank page may head next, several prominent national presenters attended the Wex performances and expressed interest in bringing the work to their venues in future seasons.

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Matchmaking mastery

Of the assistance the center provides artists annually, the Wexner Center Artist Residency Award represents a special distinction. Each year, Director Sherri Geldin and Wex curators choose artists from each program area — visual arts, performing arts and film/video — to receive financial resources (a total of $200,000 annually), along with technical, intellectual, professional and (not unimportantly) moral support.

Cross-campus collaborations bring together faculty, staff and students in the arts and humanities, as well as less-obvious partnerships with those working in the sciences, business, law and medicine. Among works created by surprising Wex-facilitated pairings are: