Laurie Anderson is why we have multimedia art. Her story comes full circle at the Hirshhorn.

‘The Weather’ is the largest retrospective of the pioneering artist’s work to date

Laurie Anderson stands amid “Four Talks,” the centerpiece of her Hirshhorn Museum exhibition “The Weather.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Laurie Anderson stands amid “Four Talks,” the centerpiece of her Hirshhorn Museum exhibition “The Weather.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

I’m sitting on the floor in a dark room with Laurie Anderson.

We were searching around for a quiet spot somewhere within “The Weather,” her sprawling survey exhibition on view through July 31 at the Hirshhorn Museum, and we gave up. Her career has no quiet spots.

So now we’ve settled for a small stretch of unoccupied wall and carpet between galleries — a noisy little bardo hovering between eras of her career. I’m awash in sound coming in from the adjacent galleries, the white lights of a passing projection and an overwhelming sense of deja vu.

Anderson, 74, is having a busy morning. She’s darting between interviews and photo sessions and attending to a small mob of reporters (hello), who trail her from room to room with open notebooks and thrusted phones.

At the moment, I’m processing the experience of seeing her in three dimensions — since I was a kid, I’ve mainly understood Laurie Anderson not just as an artist, but as an idea. Anderson is one of the reasons we needed to mint terms like “multimedia” and “interdisciplinary.” She’s released more than a dozen albums, written several books and dozens of essays, and inhabited (and altered) every imaginable form of media — film, videotape, CD-ROM, virtual reality.

But despite her comfort with technology’s cutting edge, there’s a softness to Anderson’s work that matches her demeanor in person: lightness and humor and humanity. She’s as likely to make work from pixels, code and light as she is to reach for clay, paper and paint.

“You need a body to walk through this,” she tells me as we get comfortable on the floor. “Try walking around without it.”

Earlier, she led us into a suite of massive and uncharacteristically quiet oil paintings that reminded me in color and texture of the phantom visions that linger when you rub your eyes too hard in the morning. All of them were new, she said, and I caught myself wondering how artists make time to make art. Then she pointed to one of the paintings and confessed: It needed more white. She’d been sneaking in all week to add more white lines to it.

“I’ve never been good with beginnings and endings,” she says.

This is how you make time for art, I think. By making it all the time.

In theory, “The Weather” behaves like a career survey, a well-earned long look back over a half-century of work. Five years in the making, it draws Anderson’s extensive legacy of genre-flummoxing, hyperdisciplinary art — in music, video, sculpture, painting, performance, writing and other/uncategorizable output. It charts her ascent from the downtown New York art scene of the late 1970s into her own galaxy of sui generis art stardom and activism — a path that has passed through every imaginable lens and manifestation of media. An efficiently condensed timeline on the wall at the outset of the show tells the short version of this story.

But in practice — and especially so in the circular structure of the Hirshhorn — “The Weather” feels like Anderson’s imagination holding an open house.

Organized by associate curator Marina Isgro (and incorporating contributions from erstwhile Hirshhorn curator Mark Beasley), “The Weather” dispenses with chronology for an approach that leaps from light to dark in the space of a threshold, shifting moods and modes with the familiar discontinuity of a dream state — a comfort zone for Anderson. The exhibition’s mix of documentary fastidiousness and formal freedom offers a fitting setting for an artist who works almost exclusively between lines, and who feels uncannily present in every gallery, even when she’s not sitting on the floor in one of them.

Nowhere is this more the case than at the exhibition’s centerpiece, “Four Talks,” a large, black-painted room overwhelmed from floor to ceiling by scrawls of white graffiti, all Anderson’s handiwork, painted over the course of several weeks. It’s an adaptation of a virtual reality piece (“Chalkroom,” represented here in reduced form by a set of projections framing a doorway) that she created with artist Hsin-Chien Huang in 2017 — pandemic safety measures nixed the possibility of including VR technology as employed in her recent installation at Mass MoCA, which would have required visitors to use shared headsets. Stray doodles and all-caps snippets of her own songs (“LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS”) join a chalky scrawled chorus of allusions and sampled lines from the likes of Sigmund Freud, Andy Warhol and John Cage — to whom the show is dedicated, along with Anderson’s late husband, Lou Reed.

“In some ways, it’s the distillation of her whole practice,” says Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu of “Four Talks.” “It’s fully immersive. It began as a small project and soon enveloped the entire room. And she didn’t draft anything, per se — it all came stream of consciousness from her simply inhabiting the space for a number of weeks.”

Move outward from this epicenter and the immersion grows more diffuse, the components of Anderson’s work become clearer, and the model of “The Weather” seems more and more like a map of creative terrain. You can navigate it deliberately or effortlessly; the rooms become channels you can change, a never-ending story.

A prescient perspective

The first time I ever saw Laurie Anderson perform, she was on TV and I was in pajamas.

In the late 1980s, PBS made for a slightly gonzo babysitter. While my parents likely thought I was innocently watching “The Electric Company” and brushing up on my prepositions, adolescent me was taking in the political video art of Zbigniew Rybczynski, the provocative films of Marlon Riggs, the unsettling videotapes of Bill Viola and the unapologetic weirdness of Laurie Anderson.

Anderson would pop up now and then on “Alive From Off Center” — an anthology show that I filled VHS tapes with from 1985 to 1996, and which reimagined the living room television set as a remotely programmable gallery, capable of turning any household into a black box theater. Experimental music, dance, poetry and the burgeoning world of video art were busting wide open on its airwaves, so Anderson was right at home in my home.

In one of her most recognizable bits from the show, the 1986 short film “What You Mean We?,” Anderson appears alongside a miniature male version of herself: a “clone” recently crafted by her “design team.” “Lately,” she tells an interviewer off-screen, “I’ve been so busy doing press — interviews and photo sessions and talk shows like this one — that I don’t have time to do the actual work.”

At the time, it seemed like a silly demonstration of video trickery. But now, 30-something years later, it hits different — a prescient perspective of our desire to lead multiple lives, shed former selves, divide and conquer. In Anderson’s early alter ego lurks an uneasy prediction about virtuality and the ways technology would convince us to remake ourselves.

Even if I wasn’t fully processing Anderson at the time, her work changed how I saw — and watched — television. I began to understand it as both form and medium, capable of compressing time and space and effortlessly commanding attention. In this environment, Anderson became a master of stopping viewers in their tracks, and helping them get lost while sitting on their sofas.

Her early hit singles were widely heard on the radio despite taking forms that were completely unheard of on the radio: On 1981’s “O Superman,” her vocoded voice channels a string of answering machine messages; and the vamping synthetic saxes of 1982’s “From the Air” (from the album “Big Science”) crowd around Anderson as she delivers a deadpan announcement as the pilot of a plummeting airplane.

She’s hacked the form of the album itself: Her 1981 double LP with the writers John Giorno and William S. Burroughs — “You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With” — employed a triple-groove on its fourth side: Which artist’s voice you’d hear depended on where you dropped the needle.

And when Anderson, classically trained on violin, couldn’t find the instruments she wanted to play, she fashioned them out of the ones she did have. A collection of these strange beasts comes off like an array of orchestral taxidermy: A tape-bow violin, where the horsehair of the bow is replaced with a strip of used audio tape and played (in two senses) to mesmerizing effect. A “viophonograph,” where the needle fixed to the bow is drawn across the grooves of a specialized record mounted to the instrument. A self-playing violin, outfitted with a hidden speaker and a loop of prerecorded music, allowing her to “duet” with herself. A violin full of water, a violin made of metal and bulbs of neon, and a violin made from clay and the ashes of her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle (the subject of her lauded 2015 documentary, “Heart of a Dog”).

She’s even subverted furniture, as with the “Handphone Table,” a simple five-foot wooden table with a secret that can be heard only by sitting at the table, placing your elbows in a pair of elbow-shaped impressions and cradling your head in your hands in the universal pose of existential surrender.

Among other things, “The Weather” is a showcase of Anderson’s lifelong fascination and facility with using technology to infiltrate cultural forms like a line of rogue code, glitching them out and turning them into experiences that are far less predictable, and far more human.

Case in point: The first work you see upon entering the show is “Drum Dance” — a cacophony of a performance documented in Anderson’s 1986 film “Home of the Brave” that captures a young Anderson flailing wildly around a black void in a white suit that she’s custom-wired with the components of a dismantled drum machine. Her body flings around, kicking and swinging and unleashing a thunderous storm of chaos and control. It’s like an impression of the weather.

On-ramp to the absurd

Despite all of the technology that makes the work available for viewers to view — the projectors and robotics and software and algorithms — the fundamental material of Anderson’s art is something intangible: the story.

If anything, the mediation of technology — the way it accommodates, disrupts, distorts and shapes our stories — is employed mainly as a way to draw attention to the texture of narrative itself, the way the rocks of a stream give voice to the water. The folksy in Anderson’s work is always an on-ramp to the absurd, the matter of fact always a path to the fantastic. Anderson’s strategy as an artist is to lure you over to the fence, just so you can get a glimpse of the other side.

The materiality of stories is secondary to what stories are actually made of — an illustration of which can be found in one of her earliest works on display: 1974’s “Windbook” comprises nothing but a book laid open in a vitrine, its tissue-thin pages filled with Anderson’s own dreams, a hidden fan blithely turning its pages.

Stories, and our reliance on them to order the chaos of life, animate all of Anderson’s work.

Sometimes, the work leaves space for a story that feels like your responsibility to supply. “What Time Can Do” is a shelf of glasses and cups fixed to a wall that rattles ominously every now and then — both predictable and not. Is this the reassuringly routine pass of the subway? Or the first tremors of a catastrophe?

“Salute” is an arrangement of two parallel rows of crimson flags waved by robotic arms. They rise and fall in a choreography that undoes itself — sometimes together, sometimes apart. There’s no narrative to their mood swings, which makes their relatability concerning: They wave in triumph, mournfully droop and dejectedly drop the tips of their poles to the floor, tracing them back and forth in an anxious arc, slowly carving a curve into the floor. There’s a rote to their randomness — is there any freedom in their flight? This room of silent symbols makes you feel like the keeper of their story.

Elsewhere, Anderson highlights stories by obscuring them: In one series, she’s cut and woven the front pages of newspapers into orderly grids, their legibility an unfortunate casualty of beauty, their grim messages still clear.

A floor work titled “Sidewalk” fills its titular form with the shredded pages of “Crime and Punishment” and floods them from above with projections. A duo of competing text tickers on a wall pulls you in opposite directions, an effective little metaphor for a discourse bifurcated beyond reason.

“Language is a way to not be lonely, to get out of your head, to put it into words,” Anderson tells me. “This is more the opposite: putting words into things, which doesn’t always work so well.”

It’s not all fun and games. Often, Anderson uses technology to amplify the story — to make it inescapable.

The room-sized installation “Habeas Corpus” lures you through its door with the visual tickle of a disco ball. But upon entering, you encounter the massive figure of Mohammed el Gharani, one of the youngest detainees at Guantánamo Bay, where the exhibit says he was held and tortured for more than seven years before being released with no charges. Free, but stranded in exile in West Africa without a home country to return to, el Gharani’s form materializes as a projection on a 16-foot sculpture in the corner of the room.

In 2015, his presence was live-streamed from his home in West Africa onto the sculpture when it was mounted at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. At the Hirshhorn, it sits on its own in a room, a story repeating itself, waiting to be discovered and heard. It’s a monument to an ongoing loss that few Americans have even started to process.

It’s the exhibition’s most powerful moment, and its darkest view of what lies outside the gallery. But stories are, by nature, expressions of hope. Stories are how the present calls for reinforcement from the past.

“If you’re looking at the bigger picture these days, it is so dire,” Anderson says, “but the story of the end of things is not even a story. Stories are things that you tell to people, and that would be a story you tell to nobody. There’s nobody there. So is it even a story?”

Currently, Anderson is finishing up the remainder of her six Norton Lectures (she’s delivered three of them so far, all transmitted from a green-screened lecture hall that regularly dissolves into more associative scenery), and working on an opera, “The Ark,” that she tells me may have to be turned into a soap opera. (It’s hard to imagine a better way to ward off the specter of an ending.)

Like so many of the surfaces of Anderson’s work, her stories are but a screen — a way to make us pay closer attention to ourselves and the connections we make with each other. Stories, well told, are these ingenious little reassurances that all of this is actually headed somewhere — even if you spend your whole afternoon walking in circles.

Laurie Anderson: The Weather is on view through July 31 at the Hirshhorn Museum, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, Washington, D.C.