The Hirshhorn’s exciting new experimental exhibition “Laurie Anderson: The Weather” careens through time and theme in a highly effective and often perfectly discordant approach to the artist’s pioneering career.
Ambient sounds echo through the circular gallery space, a sculpture of a parrot speaks wisdom and gibberish in a subdued automated voice, and knives sharpen ominously as you wander through the largest-ever U.S. exhibition of Anderson’s art, on view through July 31, 2022.
“Drum Dance” sets the scene for visitors, dropping us into her work in 1986 with thuds and thumps, staccato, cheers and applause, all on repeat as Anderson uses her body as an instrument. You’re also confronted with a timeline of the life and work of this multimedia artist, performer, musician and writer —was anyone busier in the pandemic than Anderson?
The exhibition marks the debut of more than a dozen new pieces, while also showcasing key moments of her five decade-long career. Anderson created “Salute,” a trippy work in the next room with flags that swoosh over and scrape the ground as electronic music thumps ever louder, in 2021.
“Laurie’s 74 and she’s still extremely prolific,” Marina Isgro, the Hirshhorn’s curator of media and performance art, told The Washington Diplomat. “She’s making a ton of really great new work. And so it was important for Laurie that this not be a retrospective, per se, but rather a survey focused primarily on new work with some examples of her earlier career work mixed in.”
After walking through “Salute” — it feels like you’re on a catwalk, in the midst of these dramatic red flags — the lyrics from her one hit song, “O Superman,” adorn the wall. Anderson’s work, the space seems to suggest, is interconnected, or at least rhymes over time. But the connections made here aren’t linear. Isgro said the decision was made not to curate the exhibition chronologically, but instead draw inspiration from Anderson’s own interest in dreams.
“It’s not even broken down by theme, necessarily. But I wanted it to feel really organic in terms of the new work and the older work sort of speaking to each other — without feeling, you know, too curated,” she said.
Wrapping around to “Citizens,” this 2021 piece greets you with the sound of knives sharpening. Small, slightly ludicrous clay figures with looping video projections on top scrape against honing steel. It’s odd, and off-putting. Anderson is playing with scale here, with nearly 20 figures lined up, facing you, shrunken and seated.
“It’s just so ominous, because they’re all sharpening knives and kind of making eye contact with you as a viewer,” Isgro said. “And the title for her, ‘Citizens,’ it was like a loose allusion to kind of the French Revolution and this sense of impending violence that you don’t see directly, but you just sort of sense it. “
Anderson often employs clay figures with projections, most notably in her 2015 monumental and overtly political work “Habeas Corpus,” about Mohammed el Gharani, one of the youngest detainees at Guantanamo Bay. A common thread throughout Anderson’s work is storytelling — it is, as Isgro says, “really at the heart of Laurie’s practice.”
Video productions on sculpture are her way of doing performance art without being there, Anderson has said.
“For a performance artist … it’s so much about immediacy of like, being in the space. This was a way to sort of translate performance into something that could, you know, work within a museum context without her necessarily being present all the time,” Isgro said, noting that Anderson will be performing live in D.C. in 2022.
“Chalkroom,” a 2017 piece in collaboration with Hsin-Chien Huang, is adapted from a virtual reality piece — and it serves as a nod to the VR plans that the Hirshhorn had to scrap due to COVID-19 restrictions. It leads into the showstopper of the exhibition, “Four Talks,” which feels urgent and silly and apocalyptic. You could lose yourself in this room.
White writing scatters over the stark black walls as Anderson forces you to consider many things, from “who owns the moon” to “where did all the wizards go?” Sharks leap in waves, rabbits row boats with rats, and birds speak in this room, as the specter of technology looms over the space. The exhibition’s title also jumps out here, with a quote from composer and like-minded artist John Cage scrawled on the wall: “Less like an object and more like the weather.”
“When you do a show with a living artist, the amount of their sort of involvement with a show really varies. But for Laurie, this was totally a labor of love. And she spent a lot of time at the museum,” Isgro noted.
Anderson worked in this room for two weeks from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. to create the piece, according to Isgro.
“And the interesting part about it is that she didn’t come with a plan. It’s really sort of stream of consciousness the way that she works. So she came with a Word document with some ideas in it. But she didn’t sketch out the space before. And so it’s striking to me to look at like how consistent the scale is and how well the space is filled, considering that she did this without a plan,” she said.
Following the footsteps out of “Four Talks,” visitors enter a room with an array of artworks that connect storytelling to technology — and vice versa. Anderson interweaves print editions of U.S. and Chinese newspapers together, resulting in one of her more obvious and ineffective efforts. But pieces like “Scroll,” a 2021 AI-generated text sourced from the Bible and the artist’s writing, intrigues where the previous effort doesn’t.
Throughout the rest of the show, the Hirshhorn highlights Anderson’s breadth of work with oil painting, performance art, poetry and multimedia. The final room of the exhibition swings visitors through other major works in her career, including an interactive auditory installation from the ’70s, “The Handphone Table.”
“Playing with chronology and doing things backward and in more of an associative way was really fun for this project,” Isgro said.
Anderson’s preoccupation with technology — and how it simultaneously can hinder, boost and even stimulate storytelling — shines through this exhibition and offers visitors a compelling way to interrogate her still-evolving career in this non-retrospective retrospective.
“They say that if you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems. Twiddledee dee. Twiddledee dum. Twiddledee dee. Twiddledee dum. Twiddledee dee. Twiddledee dum,” the parrot in “Four Talks” mutters.
“Laurie Anderson: The Weather” runs through July 31, 2022, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW. For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit hirshhorn.si.edu.
Mackenzie Weinger is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.