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Looking at Laurie Anderson

David Finkle reviews ROSELEE GOLDBERG's visually splendid and textually enigmatic book on the pioneering performance artist LAURIE ANDERSON. logo

Roselee Goldberg has known and worked with Laurie Anderson for 25 years, and so she would seem the ideal person to put together a coffee-table book celebrating the pioneering performance artist. In many ways her Laurie Anderson is exactly what the longtime aficionado ordered.

To begin with, Goldberg is well aware that images have always been of paramount importance in her subject's by now voluminous oeuvre. Though Anderson's first allegiance was to the violin--it was the instrument she played as a child in a musical family--and though she has insisted over the years that she is essentially a storyteller, photography, videos, iconography, and her own illustrations have been crucial elements in the pieces she's constructed. Whether they are concrete or abstruse, Anderson has exercised great care with their presentation in her performance pieces and installations.

Taking the cue from her subject, Goldberg, a curator at the Kitchen Center for Video, Music and Performance, and book designer Ellen Nygaard Ford have seen to it that this record of Anderson's work of the past 30 years is as pristine and mysterious on the page as the work has been on stages and in museums. Illustrations--many of them double-page stills from Anderson's performances--abound, as do Anderson's cartoons, drawings, and costume designs. And if the kinetic energy of the pieces cannot be captured, the inclusions nevertheless add up to a substantial account of the Anderson look and feel--a persuasive argument for Anderson's position as one of the most significant and influential performance artists of the 20th century (and, presumably, the 21st).

Divided into decades, the book includes Goldberg's accumulation of minutiae and magnutiae. She writes about Anderson's seven big touring shows: United States, Mister Heartbreak, Home of the Brave, Natural History, Empty Places, Stories From the Nerve Bible, and Songs and Stories From Moby Dick. She describes the smaller shows, and also devotes sections to various subsidiary subjects, such as the violins Anderson has futzed with and the many devices she's concocted with longtime collaborator Bob Bielecki. It all adds up to a weighty study of Anderson's weighty thoughts about the individual and his or her place in society.

Having scrutinized her subject from such close proximity and over such a long period of time (Anderson cooperated fully in the book's preparation), Goldberg is able to follow the recurrence of themes and preoccupations in images, texts, and lyrics. The long, parade-like list of her concerns includes: America, technology, communications, water, travel, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, violins, identity, home, family, architecture, icons, clocks and time, television, love, family, community. Goldberg covers the Anderson map as over the years Anderson has examined the map of the world--both in her works and in her often-compulsive peregrinations.

But while Goldberg is thorough at amassing the facts of Anderson's works, she doesn't seem particularly interested in critical analysis. Her book reads like, and looks like, fan's notes; high-class and glossy, but fan's notes all the same. Yes, she makes sure to mention as many of Anderson's projects as the traffic will bear, but at no time does she write in terms of their relative success or failure. In other words, the book is virtually devoid of her opinions. (She also never mentions brass-tack things like how much Anderson's shows cost, and isn't very specific about who was the paying bills that follow upward trajectory.) To read Laurie Anderson is to get the impression that Goldberg likes everything equally--or maybe she just felt her mission was strictly to show and tell and not to show, tell, and tattle.

Goldberg also does not expend much effort putting Anderson in any kind of context. The supposition seems to be that Anderson is seminal, but how she interacted with her peers isn't covered. It's as if Goldberg thinks of Anderson as the high priestess of performance art, and her contemporaries as talented acolytes. As the pages go by, it's apparent how Anderson might have affected people like Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman. But was there a point at which she was influenced by them--or by Robert Wilson? Or even by someone like Lily Tomlin, who has also created characters through whom she can express herself in ways she otherwise wouldn't.

Even more curious is Goldberg's reluctance to examine the Anderson psychology. In her life and in her work, Anderson's obsessions would seem to raise a number questions Goldberg could address. Anderson has often presented herself as the central, or only, figure in her works, and frequently in an androgynous guise. In addition to wearing unisex suits and spiking her hair, she has often employed a vocorder to lower her voice into a masculine register. What does Goldberg think are the reasons for the gender-bending, for the personality obliteration? No answers are offered.

Furthermore, what does she make of Anderson's always ruminative, sometimes retiring, nature? In the early '90s, she reports, Anderson "retreated" into less demanding projects. Why? Goldberg doesn't really say. She also doesn't probe Anderson's intellect. At times a multi-media maven, Anderson makes brilliant observations. Claiming that technology is merely useful as an aid to her chief obsession--story-telling--she calls technology the new fire.

At other times--often in her loose, unrhymed lyrics--Anderson can be thuddingly superficial. Goldberg quotes her as remarking during the '90s, "It's hard to say what's happening politically at the moment--people are focused on money." Well, yes. And what is Anderson getting at when she comments about the "pillow speaker" she held in her mouth in one piece, "The potential for electrocution is always a thrill." Is this simply a joke, or does it have a darker implication?

In her restless quests--"What is a man?" she implores in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick--Anderson has always been about more than what meets the eye and ear. In Laurie Anderson Roselee Goldberg is concerned, however beautifully and comprehensively, with only what meets the eye and ear.

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