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Laurie Anderson at the Royal Festival Hall
South Bank June-July 1997

Anderson has been given reign as artistic director for a season of performance, the highlight of which will no doubt be her collaboration with Lou Reed, Riuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Bill T. Jones and other surprise guests in early July.

A tangible addition to the venue's events, and one that can be re-visited, is the large installation piece "Dancing in the Moonlight with her Wigwam Hair" (1996). A huge dark blue walled enclosure, constructed from ceiling to floor upon which is scrawled her characteristic dialogue of graffiti and scribbles, self-conscious post-modern chatterings where there is no such thing as interruption. You are left naively wondering how true these trivial, crushingly literal truisms are. ("Testify" comes from the Latin testes, which were used to swear upon before the Bible was invented).

Upon entering the dark interior through a black curtain we came across a spot-lit animatronic parrot, moulded from white plastic, electronically wagging his sycophantic little head from side to side while his beak moved in syncopation spouting computer-generated pre-programmed dialogue; automatic, synthetic voices that are now ubiquitous, and a seemingly random scenario of monotone TV noise; regurgitated political speech, television drama, commercials mixed with her own stories. With parrots, she illustrates, you are never sure where the line is between repetitive babble and actual communication.

Despite the advances in technology we still cannot translate communication between animals. Anderson gives the example of whales, which talk to each other with acoustic holograms similar to giant thought balloons made of three-dimensional sounds, that are sent through the water using echo location over vast distances.

This enclave led into a larger area, a surrounding of monochrome, following the misnomer that one dreams in black and white.

A suspended white polyester aeroplane slowly circled in a corner before projected black and white computer-generated text and scribbled images gliding slowly past in fragments. And all at once a faux deluge of white polyester "snow." A larger version of this dreamscape filled an adjacent wall, with the addition of two spot-lit telephones on small pedestals. Their one-touch buttons each replayed the synthetic gabbling of dialogue. Part documentary and part fiction; some of the messages were found on Anderson's old answering machine tapes, while some were scripted for her friends to record.

A pillow in the corner encouraged us to put our heads down, and from that position, the whispering inside could be heard.

Dream, fantasy and nightmare were the themes apparent with the concomitant ravings of disjointed communication. But the darkened interior also provided a mini retrospective, with earlier pieces such as "At the Shrinks" (1986/1996). A wonderful punning piece which shows a miniaturised projection of Anderson recounting a curious visit to her psychoanalyst from a Director's chair. Her voice is so alluringly lulling, a hint of mystique to the minimally expressive low-octave tone. And there in the corner was this tiny little moving virtual woman discussing lipstick smears upon her shrink's mirror.

Another earlier work was the digitised video piece "Fountain of Blood" (1996), a monument proposed originally in the New York Times to commemorate the victims of street violence in New York. A small screen was set deep into the wall screening the ostensibly grandiose, 50-foot blood red mausoleum, from which endlessly poured a gushing red river emulating blood. A bit too literal, and tasteless in its ambitious projected size. Yet in the context of the dreamscape, it was a splash of vivid surrealism.

(The biggest shock came drawing back the exit curtain, my eyes having thoroughly adjusted to the darkness).

Having seen Jacki Apple's work with birds, feathers and cages in Los Angeles (and at the fabulous Twenty Years of Performance Art exhibition on Staten Island two years ago), Anderson's work was given an artistic context. Apple's work was more potently edified with metaphoric associations and the intrinsic complexity of language and communication, ritual, de-possession and intangibility; with a lot more humour. Apple manages to convey the dynamism of dialogue in an abstract and conceptually complex language without turning the use of surrogate creatures into a moral or kitsch ventriloquy.

Simultaneously, Anderson has a specially commissioned installation at the Boss men's store on Regent Street. In fact, this whole exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall is sponsored by Hugo Boss. We have the same "Basquiat revisited" white on black graffiti covering the outside windows, through which we see white male mannequins dressed in Boss business garb, with Laurie's own projected facial expressions. Very effective, but we have seen this before at least ten years ago. And the work tends to reek of 1980s power-dressed Mary Boone-style corporation art. (Meanwhile the near-by window displays at the "Lord and Taylor" department store rival these for visuality and wit).

It is Tony Oursler and Michael Hardesty who create the angst of pre-millennium identity crisis through their intensely psychological projected characters.

(I await the lofty solemnity of the high priest of rock, Lou Reed (with the similarly po-faced Riuichi Sakamoto) to create some electric sparks with his girlfriend Laurie Anderson in a few weeks for Rescue - Part Two).

Alice Hutchison
24 June .1997