"'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, there's always force.
And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!"
From "O Superman" Laurie Anderson
Do great people, especially poets, as John Keats wrote about his theory of Negative Capability, have the wherewithal to accept and live with the mysteries of human existence and the universe beyond better than the average Jane or Joe? Performance artist Laurie Anderson and her male alter ego Fenway Bergamot parsed these unsolvable mysteries through a chain of questions and stories in her performance piece Delusion which this reviewer saw September 28, 2010, in the Ina and Jack Kay Theatre of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.
DEAD DONKEY, SILLY GRIN
Best in the storytelling mode, Anderson raised questions in Delusion such as: what are days for? what are the last things you say before you turn into dirt? In between a recurring litany of questions and dreams, she wove various stories starting with a personal motivation story about her carrot and donkey system. She said the carrot on a stick kept her donkey moving until one day the animal dropped dead with a silly grin on his face. She punctuated this story with a quote from Herman Melville, "What is a man if he out lives the lifetime of his god?" Next she moved into the following koan. Her teacher told her to play a sound and then follow that sound with her mind. A bell is struck. Then the teacher said, this time, don't follow the sound. As for all koans, who knows what the teacher is teaching except to say, be with it?
Following this sequence, multiple video projections morphed into a graffito of a falling skeleton—this projection, her primitively drawn storyboard. Anderson's voice modulated to Fenway's baritone asking hard questions: how do we begin again? which way do we go? Then Anderson talked about her theory of punctuation in which she suggests that a little clock face should replace the period to show how long it took to write a sentence.
THE AEROSPACE ANDERSON
Because Anderson ventures into the writerly world—at one point she also goes through a journal of days in the month of October, this reviewer would say Anderson is more than jack-of-all-trades performance artist. She is a poet who cares about the words chosen for her compelling discourse which ranges from the personal—her mother dies and Anderson never gets to sort out the relationship—to scientific—she discusses a plan to move manufacturing to the moon so the Earth can repair itself (is this a far flung NASA plan or Anderson providing a delusional joke?)—to political—who owns the moon (China? Russia? United States? Or how about the Italians who saw it first?)—to metaphysical as she pondered 19th century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov's theory on how to resurrect the dead by retrieving particles of ancestors floating in outer space.
Anderson gained recognition outside the art world with a number two position on the British pop music chart in 1981 for her Minimalist-like song "O Superman." In 2003, NASA hosted her as its first, and so far only, artist-in-residence. Anderson is known for combining storytelling, singing, dancing, visual art and video, and playing her original custom-designed electronic violin. In 1977, she created a specialized violin set: a violin bow that uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair and a magnetic tape head in the bridge of her violin. Innovation is what she is known for. Something about her credentials begs the question why she peppered Delusion, which was commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the Barbican Centre in London, with references to 19th century thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Melville, and Fedorov without counter balancing with references to more recent philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Noam Chomsky, or Luce Irigaray.
As to the music produced: Anderson plays her electric violin but there are unseen musicians—Eyvind Kang on Viola and Colin Stetson on horns, the original soundscape is mostly moody and unmemorable. The most interesting musical moment was Anderson's interpretation of the nursery rhyme song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Movement and dance were confined to a few moments of strut where Anderson's sparkling flats caught light. Otherwise Anderson saw fit to rest on a couch that was one of her four video screens or stand behind a speaker's podium. Video projections tended toward images of the natural world and some of them seemed clichéd (e.g. leaves falling expressing the onset of winter and old age). Among the interesting projections were extreme rain (Anderson stands in some of these video downpours) and an almost holographic scene of Anderson sitting in one corner of the frame while a woman lies sprawled on the floor. A dog licks at the woman while a man stands in the background. Anderson's child-like drawings (also a projection) seemed to be some sort of chaotic storyboard for Delusion.
In experiencing Delusion, one gets the sense that Anderson was playing to the crowd that has already seen her. If one had never seen Anderson in performance before, it was easy to miss to that her alter ego, whose bass baritone is created by a computerized voice filter, has a name—Fenway Bergamot. However, the name is not important since Anderson has been using this voice-altered character for years without a name. What is clear is that voice seems related to the character Hal in Stanley Kubrick's 1982 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. What was annoying about the voice is that it seemed to suggest in its deep resonance and slow delivery that what the male alter ego had to say carried extreme weight and to this reviewer's thinking this weight mirrored the clichéd imagery that was meant to suggest those things with which we go to the grave not understanding.
The last run of images in Delusion, concern maternity and mother-daughter relationship. Anderson has a stupendously absurd dream where her rat terrier Lola Belle (Lola Belle is her real life pet) is sewn into her stomach so she can give birth to this dog and greet her, "Hello, little bonehead." Eventually this discourse leads to the death of her mother. Anderson goes to Robert Mapplethorpe's priest for counsel and tells him she does not love her mother but her mom is dying. Father Pierre tells her to say to the mother that she (Anderson) always cared. Thus the mother dies hearing this from her daughter and Anderson feels robbed for not telling her mother how she really felt. So then Anderson resorts to a Buddhist meditation to try to find one moment when her mother loved her, only to come out of the meditation with this question, "Did you ever really love me?"
So maybe the answer is that Laurie Anderson's quotient for Negative Capability is just like us ordinary Janes and Joes when it comes to love and death. Maybe Anderson is better at being with stars, which are our original building blocks.
Cover Photo-Kevin Kennefick
Storyboard Photo-Laurie Anderson