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Art as a Contemplative Exploration of Reality – Recent Works from Visionary Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson. Photo by Carolyn Cole. From latimes.com

Two questions multimedia artist Laurie Anderson that asks herself in relation to making art are: Why do anything? and How do you know what’s good? In her performances—talks, spoken word pieces, and multimedia exhibitions—her work comes across as if through a dreamlike bardo. She explores the unknown in definitively unique ways, bringing the unconscious to light and drawing connections between seemingly disparate aspects of the natural world, the psyche, body, and awareness. I’ve been an admirer of her work for four decades, but didn’t know until viewing her film Heart of a Dog that she is also a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Even better than this discovery, I became more conscious of Anderson’s adept explorations of the human embodied experience through tai chi, movement, and keen kinesthetic study of all things physical, through all the senses, not just musical. As she puts it: “When your body speaks its mind, it’s important to listen.”*

Seven years ago, I began interviewing various artists about their process of artmaking and any relationship it might have to meditative processes. Some of these artists were also meditators, others described ways in which they worked, involving various states of contemplation, inspiration, and exploration. My curiosity stemmed from my own dual paths as artist and meditator. My undergraduate degree was in studio art, my focus was metal sculpture. I studied bronze casting and oxy-acetylene welding. As a teaching assistant, I also taught welding along with stone carving and aspects of bronze casting to newer students. Although it has been some time since I engaged in metal sculpture, the experiential alchemy of transforming metal from solid to molten states, however briefly, has remained vivid. The process is meditative, one-pointed, magical.

Still from Norton Lecture 1: The River | Laurie Anderson: Spending the War Without You. From youtube.com

Alchemy is magic and arises in many tangible and intangible forms. Music/sound is another artform that has always fascinated me as well as nurtured my own path as an artist. I have interviewed various musicians about their process of creating compositions and performances. One of the musicians that has deeply affected my work and my life over four decades is Laurie Anderson. No mere musician, she is a creator and an explorer at the deepest levels of what it means to be human and what it means to sense, move, interact, and create. In the last two years, Anderson has created, among many other jaw-dropping projects, a series of “talks” (multimedia experiences) for the Norton Lecture Series at Harvard University. I’m riveted by these expressions of her unique perspective and relationship within the technological and natural worlds, and find myself both laughing and crying unexpectedly throughout each of them. Anderson expands the viewer’s cognition and perception with a basis of empathy that needs no explication. She is a modern day terton for a world in confusion and pain, yet still rooted in humanity and interdependence.

The nexus of creative expression and the meditative path has long fascinated me—probably since mid-childhood—without my being conscious of it. I was a maker and an artist from a young age, working in sculpture with ceramics, pottery, found objects, and in drawing. I spent a lot of time outdoors, collecting and manipulating found objects and natural elements such as leaves, roots, acorns, branches, and even working with snow, dirt, mud, and water, as inquisitive children do. Over time, I became interested in land art and performance art. As Anderson describes, spoken, word art, or performance art are very limiting terms. In the Norton series, she explores multiple kinds of sensory perception and expression, often simultaneously, with the use of virtual reality technology. I see how these expressions and journeys that she creates might be aggravating for certain people, but for me they are medicinal ways of experiencing my own mind: the dream states, questions, complexities, ironies, and anxieties of our modern world. In this particular point in time, which some people call post-pandemic or post-capitalism or postmodern, her offerings feel perfectly suited to recognize and soothe a certain existential anguish.

Still from Norton Lecture 2: The Forest | Laurie Anderson: Spending the War Without You. From youtube.com

I am a writer who describes art and the processes of artists in words. This is a daunting task, as words alone cannot convey what artists put forth into the world in nonverbal form. They employ wood, stone, metal, sound, pigment, or film precisely because words do not suffice or cannot express all things. And so I find myself challenged every time, and with a strong wish to return to making art myself. As an artist, the finished products never meant as much to me as the process itself and the immediate after-effect of experiencing the creation.

The satisfaction was in the discovery process, which elicited an aha experience. Then, having to put up shows and create galleries with artists’ statements took some of the life out of it for me. I really hated trying to put into words what I had created in bronze and steel, or paper and pigment. I expected the works to speak for themselves.

Making art or engaging in the creative process has strong parallels to engaging in meditation. In meditation, as well as art or in daily life, we may find ourselves doing things by rote, repeating the same mechanisms or entry points—our habitual tendencies. But during this process of habituation, we may discover momentary bursts of something new, something fresh. In meditation, we can only expect to experience this now and then, for brief moments in time. But stringing these together, like a necklace of pearls, over months, years, or lifetimes, we collect a sense of freshness. We can re-habituate ourselves in new ways to the creative expression of the now or the true nature of reality, to use a Buddhist term. A frequent, completely fresh moment of experience is not something we commonly experience, unless we are very stable practitioners or one of the realized beings or hidden masters, who are many, walking among us.

Still from Norton Lecture 3: Rocks | Laurie Anderson: Spending the War Without You. From youtube.com

As Dharma writers, we tend to go down the same kind of rabbit holes, and it can become as stale as anything else in life. So my advice for meditators, as well as artists and writers, is to find new paths to that sense of childhood freshness—methods to return us to a state of beginner’s mind. It may be doodling in the margins of a notebook or a brisk walk in the fresh grass after a rainfall. Or it could be a stream of consciousness writing or certain kinds of breathing or movement. Any of these could inspire the non-literal parts of our mind to work again, lending themselves to the creation of something new, artistically. This is the fresh state of a relaxed mind that the texts teach us and that teachers guide us toward achieving. Of course, this achievement means letting go, a paradox in itself.

From sfjazz.org

I find these talks, these multimedia performances by Laurie Anderson, herself a meditator, to be deeply inspiring; they help to reorganizing of my usual neural pathways. I have admired her work, which brings novel artistic expressions to life, for many decades. Her combination of existent elements into new formats opens and changes my mind. And so I highly recommend partaking of these and many other of her video offerings: see them in a fresh light, not as mere entertainment or food for thought but as actual methods for engendering awareness—the same awareness that meditation masters speak and write about.

May you find joy, humor, and pathos in these offerings of brilliant questioning and creation as well as surprising synaptic mind states.

* Norton Lecture 1: The River | Laurie Anderson: Spending the War Without You, 1st of 6 parts (YouTube).

See more

Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave 1986, full film (YouTube)
Songs From the Bardo: Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, Jesse Paris Smith: ‎album ~ A Bardo Meditation (YouTube)
Film Heart of a Dog (IMDB)

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Joseph Houseal
Joseph Houseal
1 year ago

Great article, Sarah, about one of the most important artists of our time. Thank you!