New York

Laurie Anderson

Holly Solomon Gallery

After Freud it may sometimes seem that a man dreams primarily so that his dreams may be interpreted; objects and events in dreams exist or happen only symbolically, to be decoded into needs and desires. Laurie Anderson’s “dreams” in the installation Dark Dogs, American Dreams subvert such a rudimentary appropriation of Freud, their context and “meaning” skewed, premised on an elaborate pun. If the “dark dogs” part of her piece offers tribute to Freud, then the “American Dreams” part also pays homage to Horatio Alger and media contributions to (or transformations of) that vision. Finally, however, all of these larger “meanings” seem more the products of viewer expectation than artistic intention. No simplified methodology will really do—yet it all seems so carefully planned.

Twelve large black-and-white photo-portraits, apparitionlike, are identified by profession, such as “Dentist,” “Cashier,” “Butcher,” “Mailman,” and “Waitress”—not exactly phantoms; this is ordinary, waking life. Attached to the bottom corner of each image is a small cassette with text, the type-written, first-person “dreams” or “nightmares” of the photographed, while a speaker box plays the dream-tellers’ voices recalling the same dreams that are on the cards. But this sound, these “voices” (along with Anderson’s music, heard in between reminiscences) do not heighten perceptual experience so much as reinforce, oddly, dream content. And when we focus on the content of the dreams, whether as text or spoken, we focus on arbitrary, even silly non sequiturs. Still, we look in vain for sociological, political, philosophical stances, all of which may be speculated upon endlessly, none of which may be interpreted from the given layering of messages.

The real content of these dreams, the sensibility, even the diction, of course, is the artist’s—these are not documentations. But in context, their structuring elevates them to an almost autonomous level, and the “dreams” slip away, far from characteristic Anderson inventiveness and irony. What are these “dreams,” crafted so carefully, injected with clichéd traces of homogeneous anxiety-imagery, obviousness and gentle, wry humor? A Cheerleader dreaming about people with Jane Fonda heads, a Waitress dreaming that Jerry Lewis regrets his ever having made fun of bellhops, and promising to repent with a phone drive for bellhops—these are the kind of dreams that belong to no one in particular and to everyone in general on mildly bothersome American nights; the kind shrugged off—with a grimace or a grin—upon waking.

Just where we are left amidst this layering of image, sound and text is uncertain—too uncertain—Anderson’s structuring resists interpretation, but tantalizes enough to disappoint. The viewer is invited to make connections that promise to expose his or her cultural or psychological presuppositions, which begins to happen: then the dialogue runs dry. But neither purposeful inconclusiveness that invites and sustains response, nor references to popular culture that subvert myth and meaning are new to Anderson. The difference here is that the careful and complex structure of Dark Dogs, American Dreams is more formally and prosaically assuming. Inflated by its structure, the content does not carry the weight it assumes. The final impression, which is more cerebral than perceptual, seems muddled and digressive within the confines of that structure. I think Anderson is consciously moving towards something which requires a more rigorous examination of the very coding and decoding processes with which her work has long been concerned—towards something that, in spite of itself, remains largely unexplored. Given the sophistication of materials and their abundance of abstract implications, it is no small wonder that Anderson’s work has yet to traverse its potentialities.

Joan Casademont