New York

Laurie Anderson

Holly Solomon Gallery and Museum Of Modern Art

Boundaries between the visual and performing arts have long been blurred, if not altogether erased in many artists’ minds. Shifting intermedia activities have focused on new, often uncategorized issues. As a “conceptual performance” artist Laurie Anderson has addressed these issues, sometimes with illuminating originality. Recently, in two acoustical installation pieces, she removed herself as performer, substituting props of a sort that propose perceptual predicaments. Anderson hasn’t abandoned the concept of performance but has displaced it by activating the role of the “perceiver”—a strategy similar to that of Vito Acconci in recent works. Both Quartet #1 For Four (Subsequent) Listeners and Handphone Table invite the anonymous observer/auditor to perform acts of sensory engagement, which disrupt usual patterns of perception.

In some ways suggestive of participatory theatre, Quartet #1 For Four (Subsequent) Listeners is programmed for social interaction. A small gallery room is rigged with four large loudspeakers suspended in a diagonal row along the ceiling with four spotlights ganged in one corner and four cylindrical light-sensing devices hung in line among the speakers. The lights illuminate a diagonal strip of floor between brackets of arrows and the words “NOTE” at one end (near the entrance), “TONE” at the other. One’s trespass triggers different sounds from each of the speakers as the body blocks each sensor’s eye line to the illuminated path on the floor. (The idea seems derived from Rauschenberg’s 1968 Soundings where the process was inverted: sounds made by viewers triggered lights.) Moving along the shining line one hears from subsequent speakers repeating tape loops of a mellow violin phrase, a softly humming voice, another voice articulating “te te te te te . . .,” and an indeterminate whoosh of traffic, wind, surf. A kind of “space smearing” also occurs in that the triggering of any one sound produces a faintly audible response from the neighboring speaker—intended, perhaps, as an acoustical lap-dissolve.

The point of the piece seems to be to challenge “normal” expectations of continuity between what we see and what we hear. Visual constancy in our reading of the fixed spatial axes of the installation is contrasted with the discontinuous, boundless auditory flux. And the sounds are displaced kinesthetically by the slightest movements of the body. In this sense the body on the path of light becomes functionally analogous to an illuminated radio slide-dial: where one is determines what one hears.

But the perception of this dislocation of visual and acoustical spaces becomes impacted in the gaminess of the piece. For all the infantile charm of magically being able to make different sounds come out of different boxes, this participant control becomes a predictable and cloying form of involvement in the work. Formalist arguments against “theatricality” are certainly irrelevant to Anderson’s brand of post-modernism. But by inducing different “playings” of Quartet Anderson lets drift an awareness of the effects of individual volitions which obscures the more interesting awareness of perceptual causes in the structure of the installation. One has to question this ambiguity as a lack of clarity (or flawed realization) of Anderson’s own intentions rather than a feature contributing to the depth of the work.

Handphone Table, by contrast, seems more profound in its conception, sustaining a great weight of mystery infused with concerns of perception, space and social communication. Simplicity here belies originality and complexity of implication. Basically the work is a “prepared” table, constructed of plain pine, with an enclosed drawer concealing an audio playback system. At each end a pair of nodes (internally wired to the system) are almost invisibly plugged into rounded indentations in the table top. One engages the work by sitting at a stool at either end of the table, resting elbows in the indentations and pressing the palms against the ears. Through what is described in notes as “bone conduction,” one is able to hear a different “song” by Anderson at each end—“Now You in Me Without a Body Move,” or “And I Remember You in My Bones.” Repeating, low-frequency, stereophonic phrases played on what sounded like an organ in one song, and a slowly bowed or plucked stringed instrument in the other, induced auditory sensations of vast, vibrating spaces. At times the textures of sound suggested words in the songs, but the only intelligible language was the handwriting beneath a blurred photograph of a Handphone listener mounted on a far wall: “the way you moved through me.”

If sliding along a radio dial is the acoustical-kinesthetic analogy for Quartet, then telephone listening, in its static intimacy, is the obvious comparable analogy for Handphone Table. Whereas in the former work sound was controlled by light, traveling “visibly” through external architectural space, in the latter sound is “invisible,” audible only as vibrations are conducted internally to the ears through contact with the table. In Quartet hearing was an active public event, with bodies moving through sound, while in Handphone Table hearing is private, with the hands placed as they would normally be to block out sound; the cavity of the head is the acoustical environment with sound moving through the bones, and it is literally felt as a kind of proprioceptive signal.

If these comparisons suggest differences of kind rather than of judgment it ought to be noted that Anderson’s management of paradoxical audio-tactual relationships in Handphone Table suggests a far more astute analysis of the properties of acoustical space, sculptural mass and kinesthetic sensation. In effect, the “receiving” body at the Handphone Table comes to feel weightlessly dissolved in amorphic volumes of sound (contrasting with the solidity of the “transmitting” table), while the seated, head-propped-in-hands posture is kinesthetically associated with weighty contemplative activity. Furthermore, the interiorized solitariness of the moment is publicly shared with a stranger, but one similarly engaged, hearing a different song at the other end of the table—an ironic use of the table as a symbol of social interaction.

This collision of intimacy and anonymity was brought to an art historical climax in the psychologically detached protagonists of Manet’s “conversation” paintings. Laurie Anderson’s Hand-phone Table is no less than a remarkable iconological twist and possibly very much more as a kind of solid-state “prop-predicament” that may define a new post-performance art.

Richard Lorber