Autumn 2000

Art’s talented daughter

Laurie Anderson

RoseLee Goldberg
Thames & Hudson

Laurie Anderson’s communication skills, drawing ability and fund of ideas might have made her a pretty good graphic designer, but a grounding in the New York art scene of the 1970s, followed by pop hit, O Superman, in the 1980s (which led to a record contract with Warner Bros) has meant that she has had a long, well funded career as a performance artist. Her latest live work, Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, saw her familiar methods applied to a small cast of (male) performers with varying degrees of success: it was hard to escape the feeling that all her best ideas are Laurie Anderson-shaped. Now her working life, spanning roughly 30 years, is given a thorough if somewhat awestruck account in this heavy coffee-table tome.

The book is divided into the past three decades, with subsections that deal with her inventions, video work, uncompleted proposals such as her monumental Blood Fountain, a memorial for the victims of murder, and so on. It works well as an inventory of a busy, creative life, and there are plenty of Anderson’s songs lyrics and drily observed performance texts. However Goldberg’s introduction reads like the sort of proposal the author might have sent to publishers who knew nothing of Anderson’s achievements. The reliance upon superlatives, the breathless accounts of new artistic ground being broken may alienate admirers and leave sceptics unconvinced. The book springs to life when Anderson’s own words and images dominate the page: her early archive photographs, for example, are fascinating.

The book is packed with examples of Anderson’s best ideas. But where a glossy hardback is fine for showing her roots in fine art, conceptual art, inventions and bookmaking, the spreads filled with full-bleed concert snaps convey nothing of the impact, spectacle and detail of her shows. One wonders what might have emerged from a collaboration with a writer and a designer whose sensibilities were closer to those of the subject.

But maybe Anderson herself wasn’t ready: good as Moby Dick was, it showed that she is not a team player. At London’s Barbican Theatre, the performance was always more effective when Anderson was on stage, or when her cast took on some of her distinctive performance methods and characteristics. Her grasp of audio-visual form may be exemplary, but the music has developed little from the work of the mid-1980s: indeed some of her earlier quirks are blanded out by the high-powered, glitch-free software of today.

One of Anderson’s strongest traits is her ability to make the personal universal and the universal personal. Goldberg, who knew Anderson’s father well, recounts the shock of hearing Anderson’s celebrated lines: “When my father died we put him in the ground / When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down.”

The statement was fiction. Anderson’s doting father, whose name was Art, died later at the age of 88. He’s an important presence: “Every book I’ve ever read seems to be . . . about him,” she jokes. Anderson treats weighty subject matter with a light touch. By taking her a little too seriously, this book fails to provide the serious, critical examination she deserves.

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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