Lost in Laurieland

Laurie Anderson’s much anticipated retrospective at Moderna museet has finally opened. Does it live up to the hype? Mostly no, but also a little bit yes.

Laurie Anderson, Big Science (record cover), 1982. Photo: Greg Shifri. © Laurie Anderson.

Laurie Anderson’s arrival in Stockholm was so highly anticipated that it felt like a metaphorical forest of devoted fans was standing in my way as I walked into the exhibition at Moderna Museet. I had to begin by making my way beyond that sense of total surrender. This proved to be difficult, initially, as the curator, Lena Essling, also seemed to have fallen head over heels. 

After a vague introduction, featuring a short video loop of Anderson’s legendary piece Drum Dance (1986), in which she uses her body as an instrument, as well as some small photographs from the 1960s as a sort of prologue, I followed an exhibition map with nondescript chapters, such as “Language and memory” and “Time and body” through a series of darkened rooms.

First was a new work comprising AI-generated, sepia toned photographs based on Anderson’s Swedish grandfather’s embellished stories about how he arrived empty-handed in America and made his way in the new country. This is a rather flat work that relies on the recent surge of interest in AI and appears to be motivated by the museum’s desire to make the legend Laurie Anderson’s ties to Sweden a little closer than they actually are. The next work, Citizens (2020), is a response to the US election in 2020 and consists of small video projections on three-dimensional sculptures of citizens sharpening their knives, in a literal and, to my mind, too simplistic symbol of the political polarisation in the US.

Laurie Anderson, Neon Violin, 1982. Photo: Jason Stern. © Laurie Anderson.

After these two new, yet weak, works, I suddenly found myself back in the 1970s, with conceptually refashioned violins and sheet music reverently placed in vitrines. A few photographs showed the early experimental music piece Stereo Decoy (1977), where recorded music is played on the Canadian side of a river, as Anderson responds live from the American side. But what does it mean? There often seems to be a randomness to sound art that sets it apart from the conceptual approach to art, where all choices are seen as meaningful. I may be a little too young and too ignorant of the experimental music scene in lower Manhattan during the 1970s to get excited about this, but I do start to understand the avant-garde aspect of Anderson’s work. Along with other Fluxus-inspired artists, she was an early adopter of transgressive media experiments and happenings in public space, wanting to go beyond the commercialisation of art and offer the public a direct encounter with the artistic process.

Photographic documentation, short texts, and annotations describing the reactions of the unwitting street audience bring some of the older works to life. In Duets on Ice (1974), Anderson plays the violin while wearing ice skates frozen in blocks of ice (the time it took for them to melt determined the length of the performance); in Institutional Dream Series (1972) she experiments with sleeping in public places; and in Fully Automated Nikon (1973), she photographs men catcalling her in the street.

These straightforward presentations of early performances were quite successful. But the exhibition’s awkward rhythm suggests a compromise between the artist wanting to realise new spontaneous projects and the museum’s desire to showcase a canonised oeuvre. A bit into the exhibition, I encountered an 11-minute medley of all-too-brief clips from Anderson’s many stage performances. If the museum really wanted to show the breadth of her career, an archival installation would have been appropriate, with all the recordings available in their full length on monitors. But this is just frustrating.

Laurie Anderson, Habeas Corpus, plastic, digital video, text, 2015. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.

The ambiguous installations based on fragments of anecdotes continue. In A Story About a Story (2023), a huge text covers a long wall, while a video beams onto shredded paper contained inside a wide frame on the floor. The image is too abstract to comprehend, but the text is a meta-narrative about a childhood accident, and how we forget the core of our life stories each time we repeat them. It’s a powerful micro-story, which is much better represented in other parts of Anderson’s work.

Habeas Corpus (2015) is a large sculpture of a white armchair onto which an image of Mohammed el Gharani – the youngest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, who is now lives as a stateless person in Nigeria – is projected. El Gharani tells his story in short fragments, but the work looks shoddy, and he is not a good storyteller at all. Despite the commendable desire to highlight a victim of the US war on terror, the piece just doesn’t work. 

At this stage, I was completely lost in Lauriland, and not impressed. 

Laurie Anderson, ARK – The Ark, videoinstallation, 2023. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.

After the dim corridors, which are slightly too narrow, I entered a large space, which, unfortunately, turned out to be too big for its slight content: a sketch for a stage design for the upcoming opera ARK (2024). A large sculpture of a cloud hangs in one corner and a water-filled rowboat sits in another, while a disco ball spins overhead (the reflections made the adults feel nauseous and all the children run around and around). The idea of iCloud crashing and all the collected information raining down on earth makes for a striking image, but it is not realised in this version. Instead, we have to read about it in wall texts – a cardinal error when it comes to art. 

Something that does work, however, is the 15-minute VR work To the Moon (2018), a collaboration with Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huan. Here, the viewer sails around above the moon witnessing space debris and the flags of different countries driven into the dust in an attempt to colonise space. It is an experience where Anderson’s drawings and black and white dream worlds come into their own.

On the way out there’s yet another vitrine, this time holding the dozen or so artist’s books that Anderson has published over the years. Since viewers are prevented from reading the books, we are returned to the concept of “legend exhibited as a museum object.” 

Has Moderna Museet smothered Anderson to death?

But then, finally, I see her.

Laurie Anderson, Drum Glasses (a.k.a. Head Knock), video still, 1979. © Laurie Anderson.

It happens in a dark corner gallery featuring the hour-long film Heart of a Dog (2016). Many other visitors also stopped here, hypnotised by a slightly sad but warm voice. Lolabell the dog gets sick, but starts painting; goes blind, but plays the piano for other dogs. She suffers, but a Tibetan monk advises Anderson not to euthanise her. Animals approach death with hesitation, like humans, the monk says, and we have no right to stop them from that. The story makes associative links between a dog’s life, the development of American society after 9/11, and the artist’s own childhood. There is that anecdote again, of little Laurie falling through the ice with her twin brothers, having to dive into the dark water to save them. But when Anderson tells the story in her natural voice, something completely different happens. 

Like a West African griot, a storyteller of ancient origin, she seamlessly weaves the biographical with the philosophical, the everyday with cosmology, in a loosely illustrated prose poem. The artist’s smooth, honest, and open voice is at the core of the work.

When I saw Anderson’s facile, yet solid performance, All the Things I Lost in the Flood (2018), at the concert venue Circus that same evening, it became even clearer. This is her genre: what Americans call “live art,” the experimental, music-based stage show, which is different from the performance art tradition. Here, the artist’s voice interacted with music and video projections, touching on spoken word, poetry, stand-up, and fairy tales. She offered a tai chi dance in memory of her late husband and played with us like a true icon at the peak of her life’s work. I could see Anderson’s dazzled fans, who came there heavy with cultural capital, venture into the night with lighter steps. And Stockholm becoming a friendlier place with a piece of Laurie in their memory.

Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang, To the Moon, VR-installation, 2018. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.