"Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo" refers to the time, as described in "The Tibetan Book of the Dead", after death and before rebirth. During this time “the mind dissolves” but the spirit still has experiences. In the first floor of the exhibition Laurie Anderson has created several, 10 x 14’, drawings of her recently deceased dog, Lolabelle, in the Bardo, so-to-speak.
While Anderson’s career as a multi-media artist precedes her, she is most famous for her music, video, and performance work. With "Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo" Anderson takes steps outside her comfort zone, and makes a commitment “to using earthly materials- chalk, carbon, iron, aluminum, mud, clay and paper,” creating a series of works more evocative of Cy Twombly, or Tim Burton rather than Philip Glass or Martin Rev. I am reticent to embrace casual media-swinging (a la James Franco)-- even suspicious of performance artists churning out consumable objects-- but here--Anderson uses tactile materials, genuinely, as catharsis, to make physical ideas of afterlife and rebirth.
In "The Sweetness of Music", a violin made out of Lolabelle’s ashes, mud and clay, sits on a pedestal directly across from the entrance, accompanied by a fresh, red rose. The violin is a charged, if not quixotic gesture, and, in a way, it is this piece that damages the suspension of disbelief required by the charcoal drawings. These drawings, like the harrowing images of Dante’s inferno, utilize an almost cartoon-like style to render a what looks like a dog’s day in the shadowy corners of hell. This storybook quality is upstaged, though, by the density of the charcoal on the paper and the confidence of Anderson’s mark making which force you to consider them as fruits of hard physical labor, and as serious art objects. Certain gestures are reminiscent of abstract expressionist paintings, while the sculptures remind me of Nancy Spero’s drawings. "The Sweetness of Music", and "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me", a sweater chest sized box filled with computer software that uses a magnet to draw and re-draw the outline of a dog in a bed of iron filings, use quicksand as a metaphor to convey a feeling of loss that is more poignantly stated in the drawings.
Because of Laurie Anderson’s various musical and technological inventions, her commitment to the avant-garde, and her increasingly political work and actions, this show may come as a disappoint to many who herald Anderson as a champion of anti-capitalist production. However, an understanding of Anderson’s joie de vivre will betray any misgivings of this work being apolitical.
But it is still it is fair to ask: In a global climate so dark and chaotic; with wars in Afghanistan and Syria, famine in Somalia, the Arab spring, oil spills, oil shortages, Atom bomb engineering in Iran, hundreds dead from earthquakes in Turkey, a new generation of radiation-damned Japanese, despicable American presidential candidates, regressive federal sanctions out to rob women their personal rights, and mass financial turmoil how much can we care about the life of one rat terrier? For an answer I ask you to consider the following:
Erich Maria Remarque’s "All Quiet on the Western Front" details a post-bombardment experience in which German soldiers listen and watch as their horses suffer from evisceration at the hands of the French. The men stand by, but are unable to put the animals’ out of their misery because it will give their position away to the enemy. The horses’ screams of pain and their disembowelment are explained in detail-- at one point, a horse tries to run away and trips on his own entrails. The book is filled with graphic accounts of personal injury and human despair of the greatest kind, and yet it is the horse scene that most clearly relays the concurrence of living and suffering. It is with this in mind that the depiction of an animal’s time in the Bardo, and the co-existence of past and present selves, seems most prudent. While many people have lost the ability to sincerely empathize with other’s personal suffering, few have lost the ability to empathize with suffering animals, onto whom we project a purity of soul. Lolabelle's time in the Bardo, and her encounters with spirits, virtuous and evil, become a reflection of our own hopes for rebirth and fears of damnation.
The second part of the show, titled "Iron Mountain", is a collection of videos projected on to small clay sculptures that mimic the videos’ forms. The sprawling eighth floor gallery is almost completely dark, the only light source coming from tiny projectors beaming videos onto their matching sculptures. Each of the sculpture/projections in "Iron Mountain" tells a story or relays an action. The best of these, which is also the most recent, shows a dollhouse sized Laurie Anderson sitting on a sofa, beside her a two-inch Lolabelle who sits on a stuffed armchair. Here, Anderson’s story about Lolabelle seeing vultures swooping above her causing her to realize that she was vulnerable and could be attacked from above, is as captivating as it is mundane.
Describing the look on the dog’s face Anderson pithily asks, “Where have I seen that face before?” As the story progresses Anderson reveals that Lola’s look of insecurity reminded her of the faces of her neighbors, in New York City, after the 9/11 attacks.
On May 2nd Osama Bin Laden enters the Bardo. Less absurd then foreboding, Anderson seems to pose a question: Do our deeds on earth pave the path for our souls in the Bardo? Or is the afterlife as inexplicably random, and chaotic as the one we live in now?
"Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo" is not likely to answer these questions, but it is worth the trip just to marvel at the breadth of Anderson’s work, and her unceasing ability to make the anecdotal both illusory and germane.
"Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo
The Fabric Workshop and Museum
1214 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA 19107
On view till November 19th, 2011