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Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson. Credit: Ebru Yildiz

Laurie Anderson: The Art of Letting Go

  • Article
  • PHI Centre
By  Centre PHI

And you know the reason I really love the stars is that we cannot hurt them
We can't burn them or melt them or make them overflow.
We can't flood them or blow them up or turn them out
But we are reaching for them
We are reaching for them

- Laurie Anderson

The Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead as it is commonly known in English, is a sacred Buddhist text intended to guide the deceased a 49-day journey from the moment of death to rebirth. Bardo also refers to an interval in our everyday lives, a liminal state where all is possible: creativity, liberation, enlightenment. As a Buddhist, Laurie Anderson has been interested in what happens in such spaces for many decades, and her most recent work invites us to fly through fragmented stories about loss, memory, time and freedom.

Aloft - Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang
"Aloft" by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang | Courtesy of the artists

The space in between

Mostly known as a multimedia artist, Anderson is a composer, poet, visual artist, performer, philosopher, filmmaker, vocalist, instrumentalist, electronics artist and a pioneer in the use of technology. With language and storytelling at the heart of her practice, her playing field is this space in between: life and death, fact and fiction, public and private, innovation and convention. At times tender, at times commanding (but always reassuring), her voice constantly asks up to pay attention, to be present—and by extension, to let go of what was, and what is to come.

Aloft (2017) is the first VR work created in collaboration with Taiwanese multimedia artist Hsin-Chien Huang. A Canadian premiere, it was presented as part of a triptych at the PHI Centre, alongside Chalkroom and To the Moon. Aloft is a meditation on fleeting time, through fleeting words. Aboard a flight, from a red seat, you watch your plane disintegrate, 40,000 ft above New York City. Detached letters float towards you, like stardust, and you float in a tunnel of light. Anderson is your captain and she guides you through your journey in the soft and poised manner, pertaining to someone who deeply knows (and is not afraid of) loss and death.

“As a Buddhist, Laurie Anderson has been interested in what happens in such spaces for many decades.”
Aloft - Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang
"Aloft" by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang | Courtesy of the artists

In this experience, each object tells you a story. As they gently fly in your direction, you have to make choices: reaching for a flower, for instance, means letting go of a seashell, or a typewriter—you are unable to hold on to two things at a time. There is something incredibly uplifting and liberating about Aloft. Its use of branching narrative addresses the transient nature of our lives: you may not know how we ended up on Mars, or with hoovers instead of hands, but you sense that there is something unique in your journey and, indeed, not two people can experience the work in the same way.

Both Buddhism and performance art deal with the ephemeral and Anderson has been practicing both since the 70s. But her most recent work addresses these questions more blatantly: What would it mean to be without a body? How can we find comfort in loss, beauty in death? The artist seems to be answering her own questions, as she proposes an afterlife to the departed: the death of her piano-playing rat terrier, Lolabelle, was the inspiration for the multimedia exhibition Forty-Nine days in the Bardo (2011). In 2015, the documentary The Heart of a Dog explored similar questions and was dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013.

“How beautiful, how magic and how catastrophic”

Laurie Anderson - Heart of a Dog (Official Trailer)

All the Things I lost in the Flood (2018) is a beautiful collection of essays and pictures that looks at four decades of Anderson’s work and also tells of how she lost her archive and equipment when her basement was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. At first devastated, she had an epiphany a few days later going through her inventory: a list of things was actually better than the actual things. “How beautiful, how magic and how catastrophic” she says in Landfall, a Grammy-winning album in collaboration with San Francisco-based sting quartet Kronos.

The starting point to To the Moon was an anecdote about a Chinese painter who had spent years working on an intricate landscape and, when finished, walked into it. It is a fitting metaphor for the works of Anderson and Huang presented at PHI: with an all-enveloping scenography, you are immersed in a mysterious and contemplative universe as soon as you walk into the installation space. As if entering a vortex, you pass through a room filled with words and drawings in chalk, a vast space with projections and a stage-like moon—a nod to French filmmaker George Méliès, to magic, illusion and the impermanence of all things. You are likely to experience multiple Bardos in these experiences.

Aloft, To the Moon and Chalkroom were presented at the PHI Centre from October 29th to January 19 2020, as part of the Cadavre exquis exhibition.

“The artist seems to be answering her own questions, as she proposes an afterlife to the departed”


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