How to give shape to sound, a story, a life? “The Weather,” Laurie Anderson’s sweeping retrospective (on view through August 7, 2022), offers a mind-boggling array of possibilities. Given nearly free rein around the Hirshhorn’s second floor, Anderson responded with a meta-installation of unfolding spaces in which doors become portals to her boundless imagination. Alternating between light and dark, this nonlinear, achronological presentation offers an astonishing range of media, including video, sound, text, and sculpture (VR works were excluded because of the pandemic). Bookended by Drum Dance and Songs for Lines/Songs for Waves, videos of early performances and other groundbreaking investigations chronicle Anderson’s edgy pursuit of electronic technologies as tools for trans-disciplinary storytelling. Over and over, we witness her transforming personal anecdotes, quotidian details, and global events into hallucinatory states of heightened emotion and sensory overload—a fluid scape combining illusory, dream, and actual space filled with sound, form, motion, and words.
The body is paramount, manifesting as conduit and vessel, which makes the sculptural works highly effective agents of identification and empathy. From a human presence in the first gallery (the artist’s video specter), we move to mechanical surrogates in Salute (2021), where opposing rows of robotic arms, waving red flags in and out of sync, deliver a haunting interpretation of “O Superman” to an eerie drone of electronic music, animal and train sounds, and a distorted national anthem. Scale and psychic distance are further confounded in projections of human figures on clay models. In Citizens (2021), 19 Lilliputian figures arranged in a line-up emit a cacophonic clang as each one mindlessly sharpens a large knife, while in From the Air (2009), a tiny Anderson, her cherished dog at her side, weaves an analogy between Lolabelle’s epiphanic encounter with vultures and the traumatic aftermath of the 9/11 death planes. The colossal portrait of Mohammed el Gharani in Habeus Corpus (2015), alone in a gallery filled with glittering disco ball stars, sits silently unless reflecting on his horrific imprisonment at Guantanamo and America’s broken justice system.
Altered books, installed in a gallery filled with a haunting soundscape, add another powerful storytelling element. In the hypnotic Sidewalk (2012), shredded pages from Crime and Punishment create a soft topographic platform for six color and black-and-white video projections, which blend barely discernible figures, animals, and architecture into a stream-of-consciousness loop whose meaning ultimately remains elusive. Scroll (2021), made in collaboration with the Art Intelligence Agency and the Australian Institute for Machine Learning, enlists AI to generate an idiosyncratic rewrite of Genesis and Revelations based on Anderson’s personal apocalyptic vision. How to interpret these works, which defy reason? Two childhood mishaps penned on opposing walls offer a clue. One describes how Anderson rescued her twin brothers from a frozen lake, and the other recounts her near-miss with paralysis after a dive gone wrong. By mining the porous edge between fact and fiction, Anderson exposes the crucial role played by memory and feeling in the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of trauma.
Nothing can quite prepare us for the maelstrom of Four Talks, an initially dumbfounding installation that takes over an entire room. A jarring onslaught of site-specific graffiti covers every inch of the black-painted floor and walls, turning them into a three-dimensional chalkboard. The soundscape is equally destabilizing, with words, chirps, violin notes, rain, and more competing for attention. And then there are the four sculptures. In My Day Beats Your Year (The Parrot) (2010/21), a mechanized parrot cocks its head back and forth as it opines about beauty and government funding in a low, computerized voice. The Witness Protection Program (The Raven) (2020) features a giant, glistening raven lamenting a partner who never returned to Noah’s ark after searching for land in the aftermath of the deluge. Gilded like an artifact from an Egyptian tomb, the repurposed canoe in To Carry Heart’s Tide (The Canoe) (2020), bleeds a pool of gold from faulty repairs. Finally, the glassware on the small shelf in What Time Can Do (Shaking Shelf) (2021) trembles ever so slightly to the vibrations of a passing train. Inside this all-encompassing poetry slam, we enter Anderson’s head as she creeps into ours. We grasp the urgency and the scope of her alarm, but can’t seem to make a move.
In the last room, we can rest our elbows in the shallow surface depressions of The Handphone Table (1978/2017) and feel the frisson of a faint electronic score. We’ve come full circle. Facing us, Anderson, as seen in a 1977 video, plays words on her tape-bow violin. “The Weather” may take its title from a prosaic topic of small talk, but it expands into a complex inquiry about the existential state of America,
our relationship to each other and the planet. Along the way, it charts a meandering story anchored in the present, with ties to the past and eyes on the future. Within the network of fractured scenes and vignettes, each work offers a singular opportunity for discovery. But arguably, the biggest takeaway is the creation of a social space where we can reflect and explore, a liminal zone at once deeply personal, mythic, and factual, all orchestrated with Anderson’s deliberate unpredictability.