O Superwomen

I first saw Laurie Anderson and Barbara Kruger’s work in concert in the 1980s, as a young person in New Zealand. Anderson had her big hit O Superman. I had never heard of Barbara Kruger. But I was in love. Powerful women’s voices meant everything to me, in the cynical violence of apartheid, Reagan, nuclear armament, and the collapsing of public interests. Kruger’s and Anderson’s humor, pathos and finely tuned rage told me that it was possible to be a musician with all the elan that only visual artists seemed to be allowed. Their work told me that classical music didn’t have to be frumpy, that modern music didn’t have be a self-conscious activity patrolled by Boy’s Clubs. Unfortunately it took until the early teens of the 21st Century to have modern music culture start resembling something other than a Stepford Wives Well-Meaning Adventure.

A recent visit to the Hirshhorn Museum in DC confirmed these artists are women of longevity, and how they have influenced my work, in particular my treasuring a dark humor that can look fearlessly into all of it.

ARTIST: Laurie Anderson

Their personal fierce warmth, cultural play, and occupation of large spaces (Anderson had a whole room to play in, Kruger had part of a basement) into the 21st Century makes me very happy.

ARTIST: Laurie Anderson

I had trouble understanding why Kruger’s work was put in the basement of the Hirshhorn – I would love to have seen her work in the expanse of the outdoors – maybe I’m missing something? I did enjoy the shrieking teenagers who seemed really inspired by Anderson’s work. They also look like crows or ravens, in formation near the enormous black corvid.

Me and fellow human birds enjoying artist Laurie Anderson’s work

The ongoing slaughter in Gaza provokes every deep anxiety in all of us, no matter who we are. It reminds me of being in apartheid-torn South Africa in the 1980s, where white people around me appeared stunted with their lack of questioning, and emotional strictures on anything imaginative. They had assumed nobody outside South Africa understood what it meant to live like prison-guards, and their lack of vision meant they were only partially right. For this story is an old one, and appears as an ouroboros to me.

As in, there’s only so much violence wreaked on the cultural body, the physical body, before the act becomes redundant. The axe falling becomes useless – you’re just chopping air. And what have you won? For there you are again, at the beginning of yourself, and you’re not looking very well. Histories will tell you that with a slaughter of that magnitude, 1000 year old ghosts are unleashed, forming an ever-closing circle of dread around the land you occupy, where their curses keep multiplying (hello, America). And you? – you have become a hungry ghost.

I like to think that Anderson is addressing this directly.

ARTIST: Laurie Anderson

This room made me imagine a series of negotiations in Palestine, run by non-military women who have small, demanding children to look after, with no time to waste, as they’ve spent time teaching their children how to share (and Jewish and Arabic cultures are really, really good at hosting and teaching). Women who prioritize good air, water, food, shelter, medicine, education, and governance, for every body. Who don’t have the arrogance of imagining that land can be owned by only one need. The land owns us.

ARTIST: Laurie Anderson and a scene from The Wind & The Willows
Posted in Politics, Visual Arts