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Jeff Moehlis: Laurie Anderson’s Grand ‘Delusion’
On Tuesday night at Campbell Hall, as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, performance artist Laurie Anderson presented her evocative new multimedia work, “Delusion,” a loosely connected collection of stories, observations, commentary, humor and reflection, which offered up more questions than answers.
“Who owns the moon?” “What are days for?” “Which way do we go?” “How do we begin again?” “If corporations are individuals, what kind of individuals are they?” “Why is it always rainy in my dreams?” “What are the very last things you say in your life?” Plus, paraphrasing the end of Father Mapple’s sermon as written by Herman Melville, “What is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his god?”
And, addressed to her mother who recently died, “Did you ever really love me?”
This all transpired with a backdrop of intriguing images and video footage of chalk drawings, words, rain — which seemed appropriate for the soggy Santa Barbara night — dead leaves, dandelions, typewriters and such. Of course, there was also captivating music throughout in Anderson’s avant-ambient style, including single-violin-generated orchestras courtesy of ghostly pitch-shifted echoes of her playing.
The death of Anderson’s mother provided the poignant core of the performance. This topic first came up as a somewhat dispassionate report of her mother’s final living moments, including the observation that, “When my mother died, she was talking to the animals that were on the ceiling.” In the later-in-the-performance account of an earlier-in-real-time event, Anderson described telling a priest, “I have a problem. My mother is dying, and I don’t love her.”
Death was a recurring theme in the show, at times humorous — such as the story of a couple who got divorced in their 90s and when asked why they waited so long, they responded that they wanted to wait until their children had died — and at times more profound — such as the statement that “you die three times,” first when your heart stops, second when you are buried or cremated, and then the last time someone says your name.
Anderson also mentioned somewhat bizarre thoughts on how life might be extended. On the more humorous side, she observed that kids have a second set of teeth that fall in when the first set rots out, but wouldn’t it be better to have a second brain or a second heart that drops into place when we need them? She also told of Nikolai Fyodorov, a Russian philosopher who in the 19th century laid out plans for his country’s space program with the surprising goal of retrieving all the particles of our ancestors so that they could be resurrected.
Speaking of space, Anderson also described NASA’s 5,000-year plan to move human activity to the moon so that the Earth can heal. However, a snag is that China claims that it owns the moon. But Russians say they own it since they got there first, while the United States says we own it because we got a person on it first. Facetiously, she added that Italy says it owns it because it saw it first.
Another gripping story was her recounting of a trip to Iceland in which she met an oft-winking man who wanted to convert his remote, decaying barn into a dance hall (“Once we open the place, you never know whether the elves are going to come or not”), which led her to consider the similarly nutty ideas of her own ancestors. Probably the strangest story was about her dream in which her (fully grown) pet rat terrier Lollabelle was sewn into her stomach so she could give birth to it.
Anderson also at times assumed the role of “distracted old coot” Fenway Bergamot, her male alter-ego who speaks through her electronically deepened voice. This included the amusing and thought-provoking monologue “Another Day in America” from her last major performance piece “Homeland” (which landed in Santa Barbara a few years ago), and the later observations about how men and women are treated differently, in particular with respect to their last names (“the maiden name is obscure enough that it can be used as a password”).
Another piece from “Homeland” was the short elegy “Flow,” a moving effects-enabled violin “trio” played as the encore.
Anderson is a master storyteller and performer, and “Delusion” surely ranks among her best work. Interestingly — and one presumes deliberately — Anderson rarely called anything out explicitly as a delusion. And perhaps the biggest unlabeled delusion, implied by Anderson not directly confronting her own mortality in a performance piece with death as a major theme, is that we often pretend that our own death is not going to happen.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.
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