By Laurie Anderson. Commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the Barbican Centre, London. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Wednesday, February 17. Continues until February 21
The lights come up on two white screens, one like an open book, the other resembling an upturned bed; on both, flashlit video images of rumpled sheets are being shown. And so the word and the dream —the two poles of New York City–based media artist Laurie Anderson’s new interdisciplinary work, Delusion—are immediately, if obscurely, defined. A third, smaller screen, located between and behind the others, shows flames, perhaps, or fire, but the image soon resolves to autumnal oak leaves buffeted by a storm—the natural world is here too, but in this universe things are not always what they seem. The final element of Anderson’s simple but effective set is a small sofa, draped in white, that also serves as a fourth screen: at least initially it’s a bright, pulsing jewel, part heart, part diamond.
Delusion, then, is the Buddhist artist’s Diamond Sutra: a shining, heartfelt meditation on the ephemeral pleasures and lasting pains of this existence.
It’s also Anderson’s most personal work in quite some time and, frankly, that’s a relief: after the surprisingly obvious and stale political commentary of her last touring project, Homeland, Delusion seems both immediate and revelatory. Prompted in part by the death of her mother in 2009, the work is both deranged—in the positive sense that it stems from raw emotion as much as the cool intellectual questioning that has often been Anderson’s forte—and consummately accomplished.
On a purely sensual level, Delusion ranks with Anderson’s best. Text-flecked animated chalkboard drawings of faces and dogs and little houses flow into surreal celluloid dream sequences that in turn become spooky faux graveside tableaux. A camera mounted on Anderson’s microphone transmits two-storey-high head shots of the artist’s craggy visage while slanting strokes of light become an effective rainstorm. The dominant colours are Chinese red and dirty white, and the sound is, for the most part, glorious.
In fact, Delusion is Anderson’s most musically satisfying undertaking since the pop success of 1984’s Mister Heartbreak. Bolstered by Colin Stetson’s baritone saxophone, which often mimics booming Tibetan temple horns, and Eyvind Kang’s almost Arabic-sounding viola, Anderson turns her electronically augmented violin into a small chamber orchestra—and she’s given her band a series of subtle, slippery themes to work with.
Thematically, though, the 62-year-old artist’s new creation is not entirely convincing. As is her wont, Anderson has built Delusion out of a string of loosely connected spoken vignettes. Most of these work, and some—including those that deal with her family history—achieve a degree of profundity unusual on any stage. Others, such as a dream sequence in which Anderson gives birth to her beloved dog, Lolabelle, are weird and hilarious and indeed weirdly hilarious. But Delusion also includes moments of blunt sociopolitical commentary—blunt in the sense of “dull”, rather than its other meaning of “outspoken”. These she often delivers using a pitch-shifting device that drops her voice down an octave—a gender-bending move that was shockingly effective when it made its debut in 1981’s “O Superman” but has since worn out its welcome.
These are mere quibbles, though. Delusion is otherwise smart, funny, emotionally engaging, and flat-out beautiful—in short, everything you’d expect from an artist of Anderson’s stature and reputation.