Monday, March 07, 2005

The End of the Moon

Jon Gipe for the New York Times

I took in The End of the Moon--Laurie Anderson's performance piece with its genesis in her stint as NASA's artist-in-residence (the title derives from her discovery that governmental agents are eyeing the earth's largest satellite for military purposes)--on Saturday at BAM.

The show was a variation on her zen koan standup routine; the stage was set with an antique armchair, dozens-upon-dozens of candles set upon the floor, a dry-ice machine, and a small projection screen that (more often than not) displayed a video image of the moon's surface. Anderson is a storyteller, and her self-described narrative "jump-cuts" prescribe an up-and-down evening in her presence. But the highs are often wonderful--poetic impressions of empty, illuminated buses circulating a forlorn city at night; an impromptu duet with an owl, before Italians with "their enormous black eyes"; an image of an indecisive buzzard, hovering over her pet rat-terrier in the wilds of northern California (as well as the dog's reaction, followed by an elegant metaphor for contemporary political life); intimations of a midlife crisis. In some fundamental way, though, it's hard to get a critical handle on her oeuvre--I know plenty of folks who don't enjoy her work, and I understand why: I admire her, but don't think any individual piece is a great one.

Louis Menand examined Anderson's United States for Artforum in 1999 in an essay that's been extended and reprinted in his American Studies collection (FSG, 2002), and one that grasps the hallmarks of her work. Menand begins by noting that performance art is typically rooted in contingency, a condition shunned by LA, whose performances resemble concerts in a concert hall:

Contingency was banned for a reason: In two evenings' worth of songs and stories about how things tend to go wrong, nothing was supposed to go wrong. And the gamine persona was plainly designed to create a contrast: The more waiflike Anderson seemed, the more impressive the control she exerted. The show was wired, and there was a woman in a punk hairdo, not a faceless middle-aged guy in a white lab coat, throwing the switches.

Menand suggests a feminist subtext, but I'd like to get back to basics: LA is a Western woman, one who never questions the individual's significance. She notes in End that she's been seeking out non-goal-oriented projects, but surrounds those wishes with never-ending accounts of projects, travel, designs, and dreams.

There is a conscious accessibility, even glibness, that is borne of a heady artist who's emotionally-literate, but one for whom cognition trumps emotionality (the jokes! the projects! the connections!). Menand is particularly acute in discerning a yearning for this accessibility:

People like me, coming out of the '60s, once dreamed of a fusion between something like pop music and something like Conceptual art, of an expressive form that would integrate the urgency and excitement of a rock concert with the cool detachment of an art without illusions. We wished for energy and imagination without pretension, for entertainment that did not pander and art that was not antagonistic to commercialism, merely indifferent to it. I suppose we hoped to strike such a balance in our own lives. Glimpses of what that sensibility might have been like were pretty rare. United States was one of them.

I suspect that a guy like me connects with an artist like Anderson through an empathic similarity in personality, as more sober folk do not. The tip-off at the BAM Harvey Theater was a stray tear or two during the performance, a sign of recognition--imagined or otherwise--in some--which?--direction. In interviews, the 57-year-old artist has stated that her audience "is a sadder version of [herself] sitting in row 'K'"; during a passage in End of the Moon, Anderson avers that "the day you realize that your story can never be fully told is the day your life begins." It is this personal act of storytelling, one we all engage in, that connects this essential Western woman with her audience.


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