Laurie Anderson’s best-known song may be her unlikely hit “O Superman.” Released in 1981, it reached #2 on the UK Singles charts, thanks partially to the evangelism of influential DJ John Peel. It’s eight minutes long, sung mostly through a vocoder, over an unrelenting, unmistakable sample of a woman saying the syllable “ha” over and over again. It references a 19th century opera; it touches on the family, American imperialism, and the Post Office. Ironically, its inclusion in Laurie Anderson: The Weather, the new tour de force retrospective of Anderson’s lengthy career at the Hirshhorn, is silent. On the gallery wall next to “Salute,” a new work by the artist, lyrics from the song are printed in white and illuminated in the dark room. “When love is gone/ there’s always justice/ And when justice is gone/ There’s always force/ And when force is gone/ There’s always Mom,” it says at the top.
“Salute,” the third piece in the exhibition, is where Anderson really arrives, as a presence, in The Weather. It’s not the viewer’s introduction to her, though. That would be Anderson’s paintings on gallery walls, visible from the escalator, followed by the first work inside the gallery, which is a looping minute-long video of Anderson performing a percussive “Drum Dance” in 1986. But in the second gallery where “Salute” waits, eight plain red flags on robotic arms rise, fall, and wave like a color guard in a quiet, otherwise empty room—quiet until they suddenly drop and clatter on the ground together with a loud crack. They don’t always move together; at times, a solitary flag dances and loops while the others move slowly and in sync. There are no stars or stripes on the banners and no patriots to wave them, only the blank red flags, following a pattern set out for them long ago. Then, at the end of the gallery, there are those quoted lyrics from “O Superman,” continuing: “So hold me, Mom/ In your long arms/ In your electronic arms/ your military arms/ In your arms/ Your petrochemical arms,” the wall says, as the flags of no nations rise and fall, wave and clatter, reaching out to the viewer, their long arms the only refuge in a dark room.
Anderson’s work literally surrounds you—a better word might be that it embraces you. The centerpiece of the exhibition, and the work that’s certain to take on a second life on Instagram, is “Four Talks,” a site-specific room with four sculptures, a piped-in ambient track, and dizzying floor-to-ceiling painting and writing Anderson did by hand. White scribbles—musings and free associations all painted in stark white capitals—on inky black walls wrap around the viewer. Some messages are ominous, like “What war is this? What time is it?” and some humorous, like “Yet another rockabilly squirrel,” accompanied by song lyrics and lines of poetry (like from The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Yeats’ “The Second Coming”) and tongue-in-cheek commentary like “Don’t underestimate how mysterious you look in your mask!” painted next to a jaunty coronavirus blob. So, obviously, “Four Talks” is photogenic, and it’ll travel on social media. In that way, it’s similar to some other “immersive” art experiences that are all the rage. (The Hirshhorn is no stranger to their popularity—it hosted Kusama’s infinity mirrors, after all.) But the simplicity of the work and the labor involved add a kinetic dimension that makes “Four Talks” something very different. Anderson painted the entire gallery herself. It’s not a reflection or a recursion or a projection of work already fabricated, though that exists elsewhere in The Weather. It’s a statement, and an act of vulnerability. It’s a conversation with us.
That Anderson’s work is at the Hirshhorn is both lucky for us and obvious. Anderson is obsessed with America and has been since the beginning of her career. (One of her first major performance works was called United States; “O Superman,” with references to “American planes/ Made in America” was a part.) Patriotism fascinates her; the symbols and stories of America are grist for some of her most fascinating works—the spoken word in “From the Air;” the huge, dizzying “Habeas Corpus.” That piece recreates a projection-slash-performance-slash-exhbition—as always, she defies categorization—that first appeared in New York in 2015. In a dark room, the image of Mohammed el Gharani, one of the youngest prisoners ever detained at Guantánamo Bay, sits atop a white chair that intentionally recalls the Lincoln Memorial. He speaks, in a taped loop, about being imprisoned in Cuba for the seven years, beginning at age 14; in 2009, a federal judge ordered his release after finding the government had no satisfactory evidence to keep him imprisoned. Still, his semi-presence in the room is a statement: As an ex-Guantánamo detainee, el Gharani is not allowed inside the United States. “I have chosen to be here virtually because I am not allowed to come to this country, and I have some things to say,” reads his quote on the wall. A disco ball projects slowly moving sparkles around the room. Standing at el Gharani’s feet with stars moving all around inspires the vertigo of a truck passing on the highway, tricking the brain into thinking it’s moving backwards. “When justice is gone,” you might recall, “there’s always force.”
The Weather is less of a retrospective and more of a culmination. Here, Anderson and her work are coming full circle. (For example, the bone-conducting percussion of “Handphone Table,” one of the last works in the show, ends up essentially facing the embodied percussion of “Drum Dance.”) There are places where the seams of a show more focused on the coming disaster of climate change can be seen—in scribbles in “Four Talks,” in some of the large-scale paintings Anderson displays in another gallery, and in the sculptures. But Anderson struggled to make a show about oncoming calamity without resorting to didacticism, she told a group of critics. Instead, The Weather deals with climate change like many of the rest of us do. It thinks about it, and talks about it, alongside all the other thoughts and conversations of daily life, alongside one’s memories of the past and the conditions of the present, and with a combination of fear and the optimism necessary to propel us into the future. “What are days for? To put between the endless nights,” it says somewhere in the massive, churning whorl of “Four Talks.” What’s inside synthesizes the themes she’s been circling for decades, then looks forward. All the jumbled notes of her discordant career come together and make something very much like music.
At Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to July 31, 2022. Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.