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The Divine Sister

Delusion

Laurie Anderson's new show at BAM is a moving exploration of loss and renewal.

By New York City
Laurie Anderson in Delusion
(© Leland Brewster)
Laurie Anderson in Delusion
(© Leland Brewster)
Performance art pioneer Laurie Anderson is back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for a two-week run of her latest show, Delusion, as the kick off to BAM's much-loved Next Wave Festival. While the work is billed as a series of 20 or so short plays -- mystery plays, as the program evocatively calls them -- it's essentially a moving 90-minute poem on the subject of loss and renewal.

Once again, audiences are treated to Anderson's familiar floating soundscape of violin chords, digital technology, and, in this case, viola and horns from musicians Eyvind Kang and Colin Stetson. The artist's own soothing voice is also filtered now and then through a vocal processor to produce her famous male alter ego.

Unlike Anderson's more mainstream successes from the 1980s -- the quirky and comic concert film Home of the Brave or the New Wave hit single, "O Superman" -- Delusion takes on a strikingly private, ruminative tone. It opens with candle-like pinpoints of orange light placed around the stage as though this were a vigil. Two larger beams of light illuminate empty spots upstage as Anderson describes a clock that's pointing to "a new kind of north" and asks, "Which way do we go?"

It's not just a personal question; it's a question for this country as well. A beautiful video image (one of many by Amy Khoshbin) shows a blackboard with certain words and sketches scrawled on it and run in a loop, as though she -- and we -- are stuck with certain thoughts in our head and are trying to work through our own dreams and delusions to find a new way of thinking. For example, "what is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?" she asks, repeating a quote from Melville that was also the focus of her 1999 performance piece, Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.

What seems to be less charted territory for her are the passages in which she works through her very complicated feelings for her mother, who passed away recently. Not all of the dreams and memories she describes are equally interesting. But some are quite stirring, as when she recounts the final words that emerged from her mother's confused mind and when she reflects on the different deaths each of us experience, from the moment our heart stops beating to the last time someone utters our name. "I was thinking of you," she says to her lost mother, "and then I was thinking of you again and then I wasn't thinking of you anymore."

What's unsettling is how blurry the lines are between delusion and reality, an idea that was unintentionally underscored in the middle of the opening night performance when the technology for which Anderson's shows are justly famous temporarily failed. A voice floated through the auditorium asking us to give them a few minutes to reboot the sound, and when Anderson reemerged and launched into a sound check, it wasn't entirely clear when the actual performance resumed. But soon she was singing a gorgeous, lulling duet version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" with her male alter ego voice, and everything was once more right with the world.


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