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
(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).
24 June .1997