By Kali Handelman
A response to Refiguring the Spiritual, a public conversation with artist Laurie Anderson on February 10, 2011.
Laurie Anderson has an inimitable way of speaking, often managing to sound simultaneously amused and serious. “We are here to have a really, really, really good time. A good time.” This was one of the closing thoughts she offered her audience and interlocutors that evening, all of whom seemed to be doing exactly that.
Her style, intelligence, and attitude were in top form, as she wove in, out, and around the question of how “spirituality” and art intersect in her work and in the world at large. The event, part of the yearlong series of conversations about “Refiguring the Spiritual,” entertainingly fulfilled its promise to be a conversation among the participants rather than just an artist’s talk or panel discussion.
The moderators asked Anderson questions ranging from the place of humor in her work to the current state of the art market (for it is no longer the art “world,” she said, “but just that, a “market”). Her stories—such as the one about her stay with the Benedictine nuns, or the one about her missionary grandmother teaching her Japanese hosts how to make elaborate Sunday church hats and learning from them how to trim Bonsai trees—were always thoughtfully connected back to the evening’s theme of spirituality and art.
Anderson has a charming blend of ambivalence and awe. She spoke with pride about how she bridged the divide between lowbrow and highbrow art and then with dismay about the all-consuming commoditization of art, as well as of life. She did not posit herself as a spokesperson for any one way of being, but shared the questions that have driven her to be creative and mindful in a way that was clearly attractive to many in the audience.
From anyone else, the Koan-like, aphoristic way she spoke might have seemed cloyingly superficial, a manifestation of too many popular books with vague notions of “Eastern religion.” But Anderson is clearly a dedicated student of many things, Buddhism being not least among them, and her quips and conclusions rarely rang hollow. When she was asked to elaborate on her past comments about angels, and she replied that she doesn’t believe in angels but believes that “we are the angels,” it was inspiring, not insipid.
Kali Handelman is a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University.