Laurie Anderson: The Weather – Hirshhorn Exhibition and Portrait

WASHINGTON, DC — I visited The Weather, Laurie Anderson’s retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on a chilly day. The temperature was supposed to be in the upper 60s, but overnight it dropped to the low 40s, as a winter storm put more than 13 million people on emergency alert. At the same time, my Twitter feed was overrun by images of Hurricane Eunice, which was wreaking havoc in the United Kingdom. Once inside the museum, I checked to see if the retrospective had an official catalogue; instead, the museum was promoting Anderson’s latest book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood, written as part of her recovery process after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which flooded her New York studio and destroyed numerous works. On the cover of her book she is smiling but when I made it to the entrance of the show, there stood a life-sized self-portrait of Anderson, barefoot, dressed in rugged clothes, and sitting on a folding chair, looking as weathered and tired as I was.

The Weather is not just about the weather. Instead, its name refers to the idea of a phenomenon so vast that it is beyond our comprehension or control. Most of the works date from the last decade, including more than a dozen pieces from 2021, which makes me wonder how much Anderson may have truly lost to the hurricane. Fortunately, she took the disaster as an opportunity to revamp her practice, and the Hirshhorn Museum embraced her choice with great openness.

Installation view of Laurie Anderson, “To Carry Heart’s Tide (The Canoe)” (2020) in Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021 (photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Laurie Anderson, “The Witness Protection Program (The Raven)” (2020) in Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021 (photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy the artist)

Among the exhibition’s older works are “Drum Dance” (1986), a video projection in which Anderson plays an electronic drum attached to her body, and the “Windbook,” a work in progress she began in 1974 containing her encoded dreams, and whose pages are spontaneously flipped by a hidden wind mechanism. Unlike her more recent works, these refer to an era when Anderson, and perhaps most of us, had a more optimistic view of the world we live in. Take “The Salute” (2021), for example, composed of eight synchronized red flags that dance on both sides of a dark path. It is both dreamy and perplexing. We don’t know why these red flags are raised. Is there a revolution or are we looking at warning signs? They swoon and stop abruptly, and accompanied by the lyrics of Anderson’s 1980 hit single “O, Superman,” they evoke the presence of a larger entity that controls our everyday lives.

When love is gone
There is always justice
When justice is gone
There is always force
And when force is gone
There is always Mom

So hold me Mom
In your big arms
In your electronic arms
Your military arms
In your arms
Your petrochemical arms
Your electronic arms
Installation view of Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, “Chalkroom” (2017), projected video excerpted from virtual-reality piece (color; silent; 10:39 minutes) in Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021 (photo by Ron Blunt)

The same could be said about “The Citizens” and “The Run On” (both 2021), which are installed across from each other in a dialogue. “The Citizens” is composed of several miniature video projections of people sitting down silently and sharpening knives. The videos are installed on the floor so viewers observe them from above, like a hovering drone. It is not clear, though, whether the citizens are looking back at the viewers or at “The Run On,” a 35-minute video loop of a text that runs in two opposing directions. As its name suggests, “The Run On” is a run-on, a text composed of fragments from Anderson’s earlier works. It is poetic and readable, yet impossible to comprehend. It resembles a primitive version of internet or social media in which fragments of narratives compete. Together with “The Citizens,” it is a minimalist statement about the information technology that numbs us.

The presence of an all-encompassing phenomenon becomes more explicit in the gallery titled Four Talks, whose walls are covered with hand-painted quotations and anecdotes. These texts come from a virtual reality piece titled “The Chalk Room” (excluded from the show due to COVID-19). Four Talks contains four works: the large sculpture “The Witness Protection Program (The Raven)” (2020); “To Carry Heart’s Tide (The Canoe)” (2020), a gold-colored and heavily damaged canoe evoking biblical stories and climate change; “What Time Can Do (Shaking Shelf)” (2021), a kitchen shelf that shakes sporadically, dropping and shattering glasses (those broken are replaced with plastic cups); and “My Day Beats Your Year (The Parrot)” (2010/2021), a sculpted bird that delivers a disjointed and software-engineered monologue arguing, among other things, that “In the postmodern world, there is no such thing as changing the subject.” They look like objects of curiosity inside a mesmerizing text-covered chapel.

Installation view of Laurie Anderson, “Habeas Corpus” (2015) in Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021 (photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy the artist)

Anderson’s works always evolve and house stories within stories. One gallery is dedicated to two biographical pieces and demonstrates how she became a unique storyteller who endlessly deconstructs and reconstructs narratives. “The Lake” (2015) is a video projection that recounts how she almost killed her younger siblings at a frozen lake, but managed to come out as the hero in her mother’s eyes simply because of the way she relayed the story. Conversely, “Sidewalk” (2012) relates a pool accident in which she herself nearly died. Over the years “Sidewalk” was transformed from a biographical video projection into a stunning video displayed over a sidewalk made from the shredded copies of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “The Lake” and “Sidewalk” are surrounded by a set of collages made of the front pages of international newspapers woven together, once again situating her work and its viewers within a larger context.

“Habeas Corpus” (2015), displayed in a gallery all its own, is the exhibition’s most direct political statement. Originally created for the artist’s New York Armory residency, the work is a live video projection of Mohammed el Gharani in West Africa. In it, Gharani recounts his memories of Guantanamo Bay. He was the youngest detainee of the infamous post-9/11 detainee camp, where he was tortured from ages 14 to 21. At the time of his arrest, he was a goat shepherd in Saudi Arabia. Allegations that he belonged to an Al Qaeda cell in London were based on his trip to Pakistan at the age of 13, where he studied computers at his uncle’s school. Today, Gharani still lives in West Africa without a legally recognized identity or citizenship. The recordings aired at the retrospective are still capable of shocking viewers, many of whom have never heard his name.

Installation view of Laurie Anderson, “All Things Fractured: Lola in the Night Sky” (2011) in Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021 (photo by Ron Blunt, courtesy the artist)

Anderson insists that she doesn’t consider herself a political artist, but she also admits that her artistic choices are entangled with her politics. “Over the last few decades, one of my main subjects has been the United States,” she writes in All the Things I Lost in the Flood. “[A]nd by that I mean technological culture. In looking at the way I’ve told the story of the United States, I realize I’ve been describing the shift from aspirational democracy to privatization and corporate culture. Many of the stories and performances have social contracts and property as their subject, and what happens when the ‘Keep Off’ signs get posted.”

The Weather also includes several older and lesser-seen works, such as a gallery featuring eight recent paintings, with no integration of technology. It closes as it opens, with a large self-portrait, this one depicting Anderson with John Cage, as they sit in front of Cage’s studio windows and listen to the sounds of the street. Anderson remembers asking Cage where she should sit. Cage replied, “everywhere is the best seat.” It is a fitting end to a massive retrospective that doubles as an analogy for the hubris of today’s world.

Laurie Anderson performing Lou Reed’s “Drones” at the Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden, June 2022 (photo Murat Cem Mengüç/Hyperallergic)

Laurie Anderson: The Weather continues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, DC) through August 7. The exhibition was curated by Marina Isgro, Robert and Arlene Kogod Secretarial Scholar, Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art, and Mark Beasley.

Murat Cem Mengüç is a freelance writer, artist and a historian who holds a PhD in history of MENA. He is the founder of Studio Teleocene, and currently based outside of Washington, DC.