Funhouse of the avant-garde


Like many people of my generation, I became aware of Laurie Anderson in 1981, when her song “O Superman” was an improbable radio hit. The eight-minute number featured a simple and hypnotic, breathy backing track, over which Anderson half spoke and half sang through a vocorder. The quirky lyrics repeatedly referenced Superman, “mom and dad” and the ominous approach of “American planes, made in America.”

At once childlike and haunting, “O Superman” followed on the faux-naif stylings of fellow New Yorkers The Talking Heads, but was more artsy; while Anderson’s spiked hair and androgynous-cyborg look became the new standard of cool for the period. Meanwhile, her other projects — in particular her videos and collaborations with William S. Burroughs — helped to position her as a counterculture idol.

But that was then and this is now, and like many people of my generation, I’d sort of lost track of Anderson. So it is a delight to discover that she has remained active and avant-garde over the last quarter century, and a new retrospective, “The Record of the Time — Sound in the Work of Laurie Anderson,” now at the ICC Gallery in Shinjuku looks like the show of the summer.

There is a surprising variety of media and content in the 90 pieces that cover the artist’s output from the 1970s to the present, including several large-scale video installations and a number of archival o^bjet and films. The exhibition premiered in France (curated by Isabelle Bertolotti), and this is its sixth and largest incarnation.

My favorites included the 1980s videos, the Fluxus-influenced interactive works, and the story-based pieces, such as “At the Shrink’s” (1975/1997) in which the artist, presented as a tiny animated clay figurine in a theaterlike setting, recounts a discovery made during visits to a psychiatrist’s office.

The pieces are language-rich, but with its many wall-scrawled explanations and instructions, the exhibition succeeds in involving both Japanese- and English-speaking viewers.

In addition, as Anderson often makes use of allegory to advance her neo-humanist messages, the exhibition works on many levels. Visitors are invited to delve deeper and deeper into her funhouse of the brave, and I for one could spend the better part of a day here.

Not looking her 58 years, Anderson performed at the exhibition opening party — playing an electronic violin while wearing a pair of ice skates whose blades were frozen in blocks of ice (inspired by an occasion when she observed geese struggling on the surface of a lake, their feet tacked to the freshly frozen surface).

Post-performance she was surrounded, as if she were a rock star, by a crush of adoring fans both young and not-so young. It was an uncommon scene for an art opening — even stoic ICC curator Minoru Hatanaka asked Anderson to sign the 7-inch single of “O Superman” he had bought as a teenager.

Clearly, Anderson has an uncommonly wide appeal due the accessibility of her art — based as it is on her personal musings on everyday life.

In his book “The Revolution of Everyday Life” (1967), Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem suggested that real social change will come when “there are no more artists because everyone is an artist.” It is a sentiment well-suited to Anderson. Witness the piece, “Institutional Dream Series” in which she slept in various public places to see how they would influence her dreams. The work comprises texts describing the locations and the dreams she experienced, along with large black-and-white photo-documentation of the artist cocooned in a sleeping bag on a beach, in a library, and so on.

We all have dreams and they are the products of our own imaginations, our most fantastic creations. Experimenting with creativity is what makes an artist, and Anderson does just that here — in a manner that almost anyone can understand, appreciate, and even attempt themselves.

“I know it sounds trivial,” Anderson told me at the opening, “but I always try to have a really good time myself with my work. If people here in Japan are inspired by this show, by what I do, and choose to explore their own creativity because of it, well, I would be honored!”

Anderson has just finished a stint as NASA’s artist in residence, and will mount a new performance tour, “The End of the Moon,” starting this autumn in New York.