When Laurie Anderson was asked, at the media preview for her recently opened exhibition at the Hirshhorn, how it felt to see more than fifty works from across her renowned career gathered in a single place, she paused, and then offered a characteristically disarming response. “You think you have a brand-new idea,” she said, and seemed to smile behind her mask. “And then you think, I had that idea forty years ago.”
Well, perhaps—for, indeed, there are some repeating motifs and throughlines in Laurie Anderson: The Weather (through July 31, 2022). But there’s also a restless and agile inventiveness on display. Anderson is most widely known for her ambitious performance work, in which she typically combines music, storytelling, and technology in experimental and affecting ways. This show, the largest exhibition of her work ever staged in the U.S., certainly acknowledges those projects, and will include a series of live performances by Anderson. But it also foregrounds the considerable, and less frequently acknowledged, range of her artistic practice. Featuring sculptures, installations, videos, and photographs, and juxtaposing pieces from across her career with a host of recent works (including a suite of ambitious new paintings), it’s a dazzling display of what the art historian RoseLee Goldberg once called Anderson’s “powerful inventive drive.”
That drive is already apparent in the earliest works in the show: five photographs from the 1972-3 Institutional Dream Series. As a student, Anderson was fascinated by the creative possibilities of sleep; in an art history class, she sometimes slipped into a light sleep, in which the 19th-century imagery of the paintings on the screen merged with her own dreams. In these photos (taken by a collaborator), she took naps in public places—a courtroom, a ferry, a beach—and then reported, in accompanying captions, on the dreams she had onsite.
It’s at once an open experiment in mild transgression, vulnerability, and the creative process, and a clever riff on a range of artistic touchstones, from Vito Acconci’s urban aggressions to the passive, recumbent female figures of Fuseli and Millais. And in one especially potent image, the familiar amusement park rides of Coney Island hover above Anderson’s prone body as if they were nothing but an insubstantial dreamwork: the solid, as they say, melting into air.