Laurie Anderson 'From the Air' installation at UMMA makes powerful impact
courtesy of Laurie Anderson
“From the Air” resides in the UMMA’s ground-level New Media Gallery. It consists of two tiny sculptural moldings that are central to a story Anderson wants to tell. But this structure, while significant, is secondary to Anderson’s overall purpose.
A performance artist who also works as a composer and musician, Anderson performs in a variety of experimental styles of music as well as narrative monologues. Trained as a sculptor at Columbia University, her first performance artwork was a 1969 symphony played on automobile horns.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Anderson’s work in the avant-garde included collaborative projects with comedian Andy Kaufman as well as a performance at 1978’s famed NYC Nova Convention alongside William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Timothy Leary, and Frank Zappa.
She finally broke through to the mainstream in 1981 with her song “O Superman (for Massenet)” on her album “Big Science.” With this proto-techno, electronic sounds spoken verse album, Anderson fused her art and music sensibilities through a series of vignettes whose penetrating social, cultural, and political insights — coupled to a distinctive wry sense of humor — were extraordinary and entertaining.
All of which has something to do with the UMMA’s “From the Air” because the first track of that album bears the same name as this installation. And given that Anderson will seemingly do just about anything to communicate her intent, it’s not accidental that she’s titled this riveting installation after that earlier music composition, despite their near three-decade difference.
“From the Air” resides in the far corner of the darkened New Media Gallery. As mentioned, it consists of two 8-inch clay figures (Anderson and her terrier, Lolabelle) seated on stuffed couches.
Projected on these two minute clay figures is a repetitive video performance whose digital intensity gives both Anderson and her dog the appearance of holographic motion. Think along the lines of that memorable 1977 “Star Wars” sequence featuring Princess Leia’s holographic plea for help — and you get the idea.
As Anderson has said of this work, “‘From the Air’ is a story about awareness and scale from my solo performance ‘The End of the Moon.’ Video is projected onto (these) small clay figures which create the illusion of looking at a very small person speaking in the corner of the room. This is part of a series of ‘fake holograms’ that I began in 1975 with a piece called ‘At the Shrink’s.’”
It’s certainly an eerie setup, as Anderson’s miniature video-figurine addresses her audience about a memorable visit she and Lolabelle once had staying at an isolated cabin near a Zen temple in Northern California. There’s also a minimalist piano soundtrack accompanying Anderson. Yet for all this, the installation initially seems to have little to nothing to do with the 1981 “From the Air” song.
That song opens with the following lyrics: “Good evening./This is your Captain./We are about to attempt a crash landing./Please extinguish all cigarettes./Place your tray tables in their upright, locked position.
“Your Captain says: Put your head on your knees./Your Captain says: Put your head on your hands./Captain says: Put your hands on your head./Put your hands on your hips.
“Heh heh./This is your Captain — and we are going down./We are all going down, together./And I said: ‘Uh oh./This is gonna be some day.’” Someday, indeed.
For not only does that 1981 song ultimately relate to this latter-day “From the Air” watching Anderson’s minuscule figure animatedly gesticulate her narrative becomes an exercise in terror as she recounts that fateful walk she and her terrier took when Lolabelle became consciously aware of her mortality for the first time.
During the course of that walk, as Anderson relays in a measured monotone voice, turkey vultures swept down toward them “lowering themselves straight down vertically like helicopters with their claws wide open right on top” of the dog.
“And then I saw Lolabelle’s face,” says Anderson. “And she had one of these brand new expressions. It was the realization that she was prey and that these birds had come to kill her. And second was a whole new thought: it was the realization that they can come from the air.”
Watching Anderson’s faux hologram anxiously relay the narrative makes the story that much more vivid as she gesticulates with clenched hands as the terrier looks at her in rapt attention.
“She had a whole new gait,” continues Anderson. “Really awkward. Her nose not to the ground following the smell but pointing straight up. Sniffing. Sampling. Scanning the thin sky. Like there’s something wrong with the air. And I thought where have I seen this look before?”
As Anderson ultimately tells us in her inimitable fashion, she has indeed seen this look before. In fact, she infers, virtually all of us have seen this look before: “on the faces of (her) neighbors in New York.”
And what had originally seemed a quizzical, if not also idiosyncratic act of repetitive installation art about a seemingly mundane personal event, suddenly becomes a sharp and penetrating commentary on one of the most traumatic events in recent American history.
Because, as Anderson knowingly concludes at the end of this unexpectedly astonishing multimedia performance artwork, “We had passed through a door. And we (will) never be going back.”
“Laurie Anderson: From the Air” will continue through Aug. 11 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State St. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. For information, call 734-763-UMMA.