TVD Live: Laurie Anderson at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, 6/15

On a splendid summer’s night in the shadow of Rodin’s greatest work, Laurie Anderson sat with her electric CR violin before a laptop before two invited audiences of a couple dozen each last week to tell some stories that cast their usual spell. Live performance in any form is still a rarity as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides; the joy of gathering as we once did to share in artistic expression is something that felt as rare and lovely as the summer night’s breeze.

Anderson’s own plans were altered during the lockdowns as well; a major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum was bumped now until September 24. The museum itself, closed for 15 months, won’t reopen until August 20. Anderson’s appearance in the splendor of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden beneath the famous curved Brutalist building, now covered with scaffolding, was being filmed for its use in conjunction with the upcoming “The Weather,” billed as the largest ever U.S. exhibition of her artwork.

Anderson was there now, she said, to share some of her stories, inspired by the stories of Balzac, whom she credited with piercing observation and powers of description of ordinary events made extraordinary. She told one of his stories, or what she could recall of it, of a wind that blows into a town, under its door jambs and under dresses.

This connected with her own aim for the exhibit, inspired by John Cage’s famous “Lecture on the Weather,” commissioned in Canada and read by US war resisters there. With her own work on “Weather “devised in the Trump years,” the pandemic-caused delay means “some of the imagery has different meanings to it, to say the least.” But her tales, so strange but not entirely unbelievable, touched on the oddity of modern life with the artist as a kind of sociological spy into different corners of American life.

First was the Pennsylvania Amish country, in which she finds herself in the dynamics of a family forced inside by the rain and a three-year-old boy who negotiates a kiss with his grandmother. Then she enrolls for a Buddhist led silent canoe trip down Utah’s Green River that merges with a jabbering Outward Bound tour.

She decides to work in a Chinatown McDonald’s and marvels at the exactitude of the fast food orders she served up. “It was the first time I could give people exactly what they were looking for.” And she recalls the trauma of breaking her back on an impulsive highborn dive at the swimming pool, only to remember the sounds of the children’s ward decades later.

All were told in that soothing, musical voice, first becoming famous in her 1981 “O Superman.” She’d slowly pace her storytelling to fully showcase the surprise and joy she finds in the world, using the violin without a bow, but thrumming the strings to set tones or create atmosphere, at one point playing her phrases on a loop that became as mesmerizing as her own narration.

Perhaps owing to the bucolic surroundings, it was a very low tech presentation for a woman who’s been credited with expanding ideas of electronic experimentation. Still, her stories sparkled with their own wry wit and observation.

Each had been part of previous spoken word concerts, but the one associated with the upcoming Hirshhorn exhibit had to do with her work in Adelaide, Australia last year where she was artist-in-residence at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (previously she had been NASA’s first artist-in-residence).

Working with a supercomputer there, she suggested combining the whole of the Bible with a work by James Joyce, which turned out weird. Then the Bible was combined with Anderson’s own stories that resulted in dreamlike scenes of Noah, his Ark, and walking on the water—inspirations of some illustrations she’ll include.

Cameras capturing the event were not intrusive; nor were the tunes from the ice cream trucks parked on the National Mall nearby. Mostly, Anderson seemed part of the splendor of the environment around her.

The transition from lockdown to appearing again before audiences has been difficult for her, she said at the outset. “It’s like stepping out into a crazy, busy superhighway,” she said. “But I do know that if you’re wondering what to do next, sitting under a tree is a very good place to be.”

“Laurie Anderson: The Weather” opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC on September 24.

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