By Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti
A response to Refiguring the Spiritual, a public conversation with artist Laurie Anderson on February 10, 2011.
There is a creativity that is often described as “fiery.” Engulfing passion wields a force of authority that is the source of its greatness. Laurie Anderson is aflame with the brightest incandescence of art, music and philosophy. Beginning the evening with a bang, she excitedly talked about her role as the first—and last—NASA Artist-in-Residence. Bounding across the stage, she talked about her life as a musician, of constructing an interactive garden in Japan, of the meaningful projects and experiences in her life. Describing the influence of haiku poetry and the artistic themes of observation, she was dynamic and engaging, artfully choreographing our attention between her words and her projected images. She was creating a kind of cooperative dance piece with the evening, interacting with the rhythms of conversation and with the pitches of her voice.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that I could not stop looking at her feet. Laurie Anderson wore flaming red shoes and matching red socks, and they struck a symbolic chord with me. Her choice reminded me of the dark Hans Christen Andersen story “The Red Shoes,” about a young girl who cannot stop dancing. The girl’s dance is a torturous punishment for her vanity and unwillingness to worship God, a morality lesson that is emphasized with a gruesome end (as with all Hans Christen Andersen stories, read it only if you have a strong stomach).
But can Andersen be applied to Anderson? Is there significance to Laurie Anderson’s choice to wear the flaming red shoes of one who cannot stop creating? And does she find joy or exhaustion in her tireless artistry?
But then isn’t this the eternal struggle of the creative mind, whose bright burn both illuminates and consumes? As she spoke about looking at the Tiepolo-hued images of far-flung galaxies and galactic nebulae, a mix of joy and incredulity spread across her face, which, as I turned to look around me, spread rapid-fire across the faces in the audience. Pink and blue celestial images of deep space blossomed in the minds of everyone seated, and there was great pleasure is sharing a mental moment.
But when Anderson begged the know-thyself question—“What are you worth?—there was the noticeable, uncomfortable shifting in a room full of people who surely must ask themselves that question often. Bemoaning the need for self-branding and consumer appeal, Anderson made an interesting allusion to a Foucault-like idea of the body as product. “We keep our emotions stored in the body,” she revealed, an understanding she came to after spending two weeks on a silent meditation retreat. You realize pain is physical, she continued, and that there is “loneliness in your knee and loss in your shoulder.” If emotions are foundations of art and expression, and they cause us to suffer physically, is not then creativity a source of suffering? How do we justify simultaneous artistic catharsis and burden? How does one wear red shoes without being danced out?
Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti is an undergraduate student in religion at Columbia University.