When Laurie Anderson, who is from a family of eight children, was an eager-for-attention 12-year-old, always getting lost in the crowd, she tried to do something she had never done before, and missed. She did a flip off the high diving board and missed the pool. And she broke her back.
“It’s one of these stories that you haul out if someone asks, ‘What was your childhood like?’” Anderson says. “I spent quite a while in the children’s ward of the hospital in traction. One of the first things I had reconfirmed for me was that adults are idiots, because this doctor came and said, ‘You’re never going to walk again.’ I thought, what an idiot! You know, when you’re 12, you just think you’re the only non-idiot in the world.”
More proof of adult idiocy arrived with the volunteers who read children’s books to their captive charge, including a chipper tale about a gray rabbit that comes hopping down the road and where it goes neither the farmer, the farmer’s wife or their son ever knows. “I was reading books like Crime and Punishment and A Tale of Two Cities at the time, so this was real torture,” Anderson says. “The volunteers were too loud and I couldn’t talk, either.”
She did, of course, learn to walk again. “I wore a brace for a couple of years, from 12 to 14, which was a big metal-and-leather thing that I could never take off. It was a bad time to be wearing a Frankenstein outfit.”
The genesis of Anderson’s video installation The Gray Rabbit, at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary through April 9, begins in her memories of these events and a desire to put short stories into a 3-D film, or a film of images projected onto objects. She wanted it to be “a story you could walk through.” That desire, in turn, grew out of the full-scale multimedia show called Delusion, which she premiered in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Delusion was a big stage production that included live and recorded images projected onto objects—crumpled paper, a draped couch—and into a corner.
It is characteristic of Anderson’s process that an idea starts as one thing—a film, say—and morphs into another, like a video installation. An idea for an opera might become a potato print; a spoken-word performance piece might become a concert with dazzling visual images that puts the story on the periphery. “In a performance, the engine is words,” she says. “In a concert, it’s pure sound.” Anderson’s work has a way of shifting and changing, expanding and contracting and developing, until it settles into a final form.
Calgary has gotten two firsts this month. As artist-in-residence at One Yellow Rabbit’s 26th annual High Performance Rodeo, Anderson presented the first public performances of Another Day in America, a work-in-progress, at Theatre Junction Grand, as well as the first North American appearance of The Gray Rabbit, which she has changed from the first, more elaborate version shown last year in her retrospective exhibition “I In U/Eu em Tu,” in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Here, as she was installing The Gray Rabbit at the Glenbow (with the help of four students from the Alberta College of Art & Design, where she also gave an artist’s talk) it seemed “too fussy and romantic and a little bit silly.” The symphonic musical score that went with the piece wasn’t working, either.
“Simplicity is a goal I like to make for myself,” says Anderson, 64, who pays close attention to the way a work looks and feels in a particular place or setting. “The last edit suggested to me that this could be another thing, a shimmering river of light with no sound. It’s very divorced from the story now. Now, it’s a ghost story.”
The idea of a ghost story is still connected to Anderson’s story, however, and to events in her life since then. When she was in the hospital in the 1950s, all the children, whatever their affliction, were put into one ward. “The children who were burned were suspended on these almost-rotisseries and [the nurses] would turn them around and bathe their burns in these cool liquids . . . Much later, I was in the middle of telling this story to somebody and suddenly all the sounds of the ward came back at once in this huge rush, and it was like I was back in the ward at night. I heard the sound of all this crying and screaming and the sounds children make when they are dying, and the nurses who were cleaning up around the ward and not mentioning what had happened when some of the kids had disappeared the next morning.
“All of that came back as an overwhelming, three-dimensional sound experience and I realized that I had cleaned up a lot and that I’d told the story from the point of view of a bratty 12-year-old and not really [showing] how afraid I was and how alone I felt. It was a terrifying noise, the kind of thing you can feel but you can’t say, and I realized that it was a process.
“You get your story and you tell your story and every time you tell your story, you forget it more. So I call the story of The Gray Rabbit a story about a story, because it was really about the process of remembering and what that does to it.”
The Gray Rabbit invokes memory as a process of forgetting and editing, as well as remembering; it’s in a large dark room with a 40-foot-long rectangle of shining light projected onto the floor. The light, emanating from six overhead projectors, falls onto a low relief created by the shredded pages of books, many of them copies of A Tale of Two Cities. The texture of these paper particles makes the images running across appear to be thick and palpable at the same time that they are thin and evanescent. It is a texture that scintillates in the constantly moving light.
In this embodiment of the inexorable flow of time, the face of a volunteer looms large, a drawing in white on black animates the nurses moving silently around the night ward, a doctor leans in to talk, a lone swimmer plows through waves, Anderson’s dearly departed dog Lolabelle is barely visible through slats of colour, the image of a child (sitting up in bed?) rushes past, a pastoral farm with cows and chickens unfolds into a landscape, and a white strobing light silently raises alarm. Indistinct shadows move nearer and farther away, a girl hops across stones, and the faces of clocks stop at five to one. The images seem to float and flow across the chopped-up text, in which, when examined closely, bits of letters and words are visible.
That all our stories come to this, ground up by the river of time, is beautiful, terrifying and immensely poignant. There is no sound: no music or narration. Anderson decided in the end to make this work silent because the music provided too many emotional cues, dictating how to feel; and really, the changing tempos of the moving images are enough. “It’s important that you fall into this place like you can fall into music,” Anderson says, likening the form to a sidewalk, a six-panel comic strip or a shimmering Tibetan river.
When she made The Gray Rabbit the first time, Anderson felt she was making something she had never seen before. “I go for that,” she says. Then she went to the Barbican in London, where the exhibition “Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s” was on view, and revisited several early works. Anderson was a student of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, after all. Included in the show were collages Anderson had made by interweaving pages of the New York Times and the China Times. The catalogue showed a diaristic piece, Seven Weekends in March, composed of pulped newspapers formed into bricks and laid out in a line on the floor.
“The Gray Rabbit felt so new, and there it was from 40 years ago,” Anderson says. What goes around comes around, and will come around again in a new manifestation of The Gray Rabbit as a book to be read with 3-D glasses. “We’re doing a giant picture book of The Gray Rabbit story,” Anderson says, “so it’s come all the way around to be about the story, and three-dimensional.”
As her work morphs, she has learned to trust her intuition, she says, though it has taken her years to do it. “If you have this feeling and something you can’t put into words,” this artist known for her love of language says, “I go with that.”