And so I went to the Barbican Theatre, and watched Laurie Anderson sitting in a big armchair on a stage filled with candles.
And so I went to the Barbican Theatre, and watched Laurie Anderson sitting in a big armchair on a stage filled with candles. But have you ever noticed Anderson's habit of starting sentences with a conjunction - "and" or "but" - even when she is changing the subject, implying (without bothering to establish) a connection with the sentence before?
Or the way she punctuates her sentences with repetitions and pauses, so that the words seem carefully weighed even when they don't mean anything... much? Or the way she imparts an air of mystery by dropping from her usual crooning style into a lingering, hissing whisper?
You may gather that I'm not Anderson's biggest fan, though before this latest show I did sort of approve of her, in principle at least, as an innovator in terms of sounds and narrative structures. But what struck me most watching The End of the Moon was how far her style has collapsed into a shtick: how what used to look like innovation turns out to have been novelty, incapable of being developed.
The starting point for this show was her appointment in 2002 as Nasa's first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-residence. As she tells it, neither she nor Nasa had much idea what an artist-in-residence was supposed to do, so she spent her time touring Nasa installations, such as the Hubble Space Center, where information from the orbiting telescope is processed and interpreted, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where experiments were being conducted with autonomous, quasi-intelligent robots. A small screen just off-centre of the stage shows an image of the Moon's surface, and her rambling monologue is peppered with cosmological references.
Not long after her residency started, the space shuttle Columbia broke up, leaving a trail of debris that stretched, she relates, from California to Florida. The performance is overshadowed by the idea of disaster descending from the skies - as happened on 11 September 2001, and as threatened on a hike in California when vultures circled overhead, apparently looking for an opportunity to swoop on Anderson's rat terrier, Lolabelle. She also plays with the idea of universal apocalypse - Nasa scientists introduced her to the idea of the "Big Rip", a reverse Big Bang, which may occur in some billions of years' time, when malign "phantom energy" swamps the universe, destroying the structure of very atoms.
Part of the problem with the show is the way Anderson juxtaposes such grand themes with the merely trivial. The intention may be to show how the universal and the personal are linked, but, too often, the effect is of bathos, scaling down from cosmic grandeur to the merely twee - as in a dog named Lolabelle.
Too often, as well, Anderson's phrase-making sounds momentarily profound, but collapses into banality at the slightest puff of analysis. In the opening section, she recalls a friend asking her a question about beauty. "What is beauty anyway?" Anderson wonders. "Something super-new and glamorous, or deep and complicated?" Heavens, Laurie, you've been a creative artist for 30 years and it hasn't occurred to you before now to wonder about the nature of beauty?
The show takes off when Anderson shows off her technology, standing centre stage in her black suit, bow swooping over her five-string electric viola - at one point, a tiny camera gives us a vertiginous shot of the bow's progress across the strings. Through a tiny keyboard, she amplifies, multiplies and variously transforms the sound of the strings, adding rhythms and chaotic beats and chimes. At times, the rush of noise has a genuinely apocalyptic force; it's a pity that, in the quieter sections, the melodies are not more exciting or better developed. By the end of 90 minutes, the effect is not of apocalypse, but deflation. This is the way the world ends - not with a bang, but a whimper.
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