Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The End of the Moon

So, the Laurie Anderson performance was wonderful, as expected. Much more low-key than "Happiness," last year's show , and also very notably sad. Not in a maudlin "telling sad weepy stories" way, of course. This is Laurie Anderson after all: if there's emotional content in her stories, it is more often suggested than it is explicitly told, or the emotional response comes after the fact, as the pieces kind of fall into place.

I felt as if last year's show was characterized by a sense of wide-eyed befuddlement, a "can you believe this?" sort of reaction to the post-9/11 world in which we live. This show felt more like the sad resignation and acceptance of this new world. Dark, simple stage, littered with small lit candles, a red velvet chair stage-right from which she occasional told stories that were of a more personal nature, very small keyboard and effects rig center-stage, a white plastic rectangle with some of the craters of the moon imprinted on it, which functioned briefly as a incongruous and unexpected video screen but which mostly just hung there, mysterious and cold, floating and starkly lit to stage-left. And stories, with quiet sequenced rhythmic keyboard accompaniment, interspersed with mournful violin pieces.

The show, named "The End of the Moon," was initially called "Beauty" when she began workshopping it last year, and a lot of the material dealt with concepts of beauty, and symmetry, and science, and the way that people can cling to or believe two things at once, often things that directly contradict or undermine each other, and the constant Laurie Anderson bemusement at absurdity in everyday life, and the ways in which all of these things intersect and intertwine. I came away with a sense that we perceive beauty in the spaces between these things, or in the places in which they overlap.

One of the running themes throughout the show was her experiences over the past two years while acting as the first (and, sadly, last) artist-in-residence at NASA. Her description of the reassembly of the fragments that were gathered from the ground after the Columbia disaster was spine tingling: while trying to study the disaster and determine the casue, the pieces they were able to locate and collect were arranged in an aircraft hangar, placed in the approximate shape of the shuttle itself. But there were so many pieces missing, she said, that the actual arrangement was more like a map. A map of things that had been lost.

And she told this great story about how, when she first got to NASA, she saw one of the most beautiful pictures she'd ever seen, a Hubble photograph of some nebulae or other, and it was full of gorgeous baby blues and pinks, with baby stars being born within. And she started wondering, is it REALLY that color? That's amazing! So she asked one fo the technicians about it, and the technicians said well, of course, the actual appearance is largely determined by what wavelengths of light we're actually looking at and etc. and so she asked "but what about the colors?" And he said, well, we chose them. So, she asked, you mean it could have been medium gray and a sort of brownish purple if you wanted? And he said sure. So, she asked, why'd you pick pink and blue? And the guy says, "Well, we thought poeple would like that."

And she sums it up by saying "wait a minute, who's the artist in residence here?"

I loved the ways in which she cast science in an artistic light. We tend to think of science as this cold, clinical and exact thing. But the fact is that so much of the edgier parts of science, like astrophysics, and quantum physics, bear as much a resemblance to avant garde art as to anything clinical and exact. They are so full of guess work, and supposition, and playful toying with concepts and new ideas.

One final anecdote, which hit me like a gut punch: Her current work-in-progress consists of doing a series of walks, 10 day walks, and then using the experiences gathered in the walk to generate her work. She has a terrier (named Lolabelle), and she had read that terrier's, being very intelligent, could learn and understand up to 500 words, so she decided to go on a long and very secluded walk/retreat with Lolabelle to see if she could figure out what those words were.

So, she describes how they go on this walk through some portion of the California mountains, where there was hardly a single other person to encounter the entire time. And she describes how Lolabelle, being a terrier and bred for herding, tends to walk along in this constant state of alertness, checking the permieter, circling behind her and then running ahead to wait behind a tree before popping out and again checking everything. And then, somewhere along the way, she notices turkey vultures, circlng lazily overhead. And then sometime later, a couple of the vultures suddenly swoop down, and then hover near the treetops, checking out Lolabell, trying to figure out what that thing is, realizing that, no that thing's not a rabbit or a squirel, just a bit too big for us to take out. And Lolabelle stops and stares up at them, wide eyed, alert but terrified, and then the vultures went away.

But after that, for the rest of the trip, Lolabelle is different. Instead of just checking the perimeter, she's checking the sky as well. And her expression is one of realization, the sudden awful understanding that the dangers don't just come from the ground anymore. Now she's got to worry about a whole 240 more degrees. Now they can come from the sky. And Laurie, puzzled, says that the expression on Lolabelle's face was familiar, and she couldn't quite figure it out until she realized, finally, that Lolabelle had discovered the very same expression that Laurie had seen on the faces of all of her neighbors, in New York City, after 9/11.

It made my hair stand on end, my breath catch in my throat, and my eyes well up. And in recalling that moment, the exact same thing is happening now.

Mood: Invigorated
Now Playing: Vangelis, "Blade Runner"

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