Art and the Everyday

Laurie Anderson: The Language of the Future.
Selected Works 1971–2013
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide
1 March – 19 April 2013

On entering the Laurie Anderson exhibition at the Samstag Museum one encounters the centrepiece, a major projected work—six projectors beam down over a long rectangle of uneven surface of minced paper. My initial impressions are of passing shadows: black and white with momentary red over the rise and fall of the paper; much like rolling clouds—an aerial view over a mountainous landscape perhaps? But this is an abstract work and one has to work at it to gain the pleasure of signifying meaning. 

I am fortunate that I am accompanied by Samstag Museum curator Gillian Brown who starts to fill in the gaps. The work is entitled The Swimmer (2009-12) and as I watch the six minute loop again, episodic images become clearer, with children swimming, garish nurses’ faces, and nostalgic farming country vistas passing by in what Brown calls ‘snatches of memories’ from Anderson’s life. Brown mentions an ‘accident’ as the red light flashes. Is the red light the accident I wonder? 

Above an ominous soundtrack plays: an industrial roar and clang that repeats. Brown explains that though the sound is from a separate work Anderson did not mind this chance interaction and ‘interplay’ between two separate works. The notion of interplay is a key aspect here as the five works exhibited connect and reinforce each other. 

Next to The Swimmer is a work entitled A Story About a Story (2012), that completes the narrative. Anderson writes of her true story of breaking her back in a swimming accident and subsequent stay in hospital at twelve years old, ‘floating’ in traction with a ward of burn victims. She is told she will never ‘walk again’, but does. However in constantly retelling this story she began to feel there was something ‘weird … missing’, which were the sounds of the ward: ‘children crying and screaming’; their sounds of ‘dying’. Then she remembers the ‘smell of burned skin’. This is an affective moment where sound and smell combine to shock the nervous system. It is a reminder of the power of sensory impact and its capacity to disrupt and suspend judgement for pure fear, and that it is sometimes lost in the retelling of the same narrative.

At the same time the placement of a third work The Electric Chair (1977-78/2013) on the floor above The Swimmer with its amplified sound, creates a foreboding presence that underscores the affective power of Anderson’s childhood story. The regular industrial pulse paces out the pattern of a harsh soundscape. When I go upstairs I observe that this alternates between fluoros that flash on and off and an ordinary office chair that moves back and forth along a channel. The Electric Chair is a recreation of work from the late 1970s. Set in a warehouse, it reflected for Anderson what New York was at the time ‘dark, messy and dangerous’. This is a decaying industrial atmosphere of the Eraserhead variety. The moving chair and fluoros are miked and the combined feedback heightens the visual and aural design. 

Taken in the context of the works on the first floor, a musical narrative emerges, and this is purely by chance. Chance is a theme shared with the New York post-war art scene. Artists such as John Cage, and movements such as Fluxus, encouraged chance as a valid aesthetic element. Together with this random moment is the clash of soundtrack and visual display, the notion of intermedia or interplay between artforms. The late Merce Cunningham similarly employed these techniques in dance with chance sound interactions. Anderson’s work can be read as part of this continuum.

If the works thus far have been loud both in sound and vision, a fourth work functions in the opposite way: quiet but nonetheless powerful. In From the Air (2008) Anderson creates intimacy through tiny figurines on which herself and her dog, Lolabelle, are projected (what she calls ‘fake holograms’) while she recites a story. This is a simple and clever method. Due to the size of the holograms (about the height of a hand) I felt myself leaning forward towards them. Often in pre-recorded video liveness and intimacy are lost but here this is effectively recreated through downsizing.

Anderson’s voice, with beguiling tone, pauses, a subtly delightful resonance and melodic rise and fall gives an air of casualness that covers a darker underside. She takes the audience on a journey literally and metaphorically from New York to the mountains of California and back again. However her planned experiment to talk to Lolabelle gets waylaid in the enjoyment of the beauty and the serenity of a remote location. She paints a poetic picture of ‘mountains covered in tiny wild flowers … huge tall sky … thin pale blue air’ and vultures circling lazily in the sky, but so far up she takes no notice of them. Anderson recalls that the location was ‘so dazzlingly beautiful’ that ‘beauty got in the way of the experiment’.

Suddenly one morning everything changes, and she ‘smell[s] them’ before she can see them: vultures swooping down and hovering above her dog. She observes two things: the vultures are deciding whether the dog is too big to eat and, second, is the dog’s realisation that she is ‘prey’ and vulnerable to the world above her. 

Anderson recounts that from that moment, on their daily walks the dog no longer has her nose to the ground but is looking straight up. Anderson wonders where she has seen that look before and realises: it was on the faces of New Yorkers just after 9/11. In this way the personal becomes connected to the greater political and social fabric, with profound impact.

In the final work Lolabelle in the Bardo (2013) the relationship between the personal and the wider community again features strongly. The passing of Anderson’s dog caused her loss and grief and she painted to release the pain. The resultant expressionistic canvases showcase violence and the movement of the dog in swirling landscapes. A plane plunges into New York while the dog’s eyes gaze with terror: the terror of vultures hovering, the terror of 9/11, the terror of death. The personal becomes greater for being linked to a wider socio-political narrative: what Anderson refers to as ‘big stories’ and what marks out her work as the art of the everyday amplified.

Laurie Anderson, The Swimmer, 2009-12. 6 channel video projection, shredded paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photograph Sam Noonan.

Laurie Anderson, The Swimmer, 2009-12. 6 channel video projection, shredded paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photograph Sam Noonan.

Laurie Anderson, Electric Chair, 1977-78/2013. Office chair, metal rack, microphones, keyboard, fluorescent light and electronic components, dimensions variable. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photograph Sam Noonan.

Laurie Anderson, From the Air, 2008. Single channel video projection, clay figure, dimensions variable. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photograph Sam Noonan.