Laurie Anderson Surprises Us All

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Laurie Anderson once said on stage at the Rubin that the essence of good art is that it should have the ability to surprise. It no longer surprises me that she should have said this. When I look back on her near decade-long engagement with the museum, the indicators of her unprejudiced curiosity were all there the moment she set foot in the former Barneys flagship store, now transfigured into a haven for Himalayan art. It was not long after we had opened when one Sunday a contemporary art posse of Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, Brice and Helen Marden, along with Laurie and Lou Reed rode up to the front doors to inspect this upstart start-up. Laurie had already made a contribution to the museum's artistic life. Kiki Smith and Arlene Shechet reached out to 108 living artists to make some art that would be printed on a silk square and strung, like a Tibetan prayer flag, to mark the opening of the museum. So on October 2, 2004, we unfurled five strings of flags, hoisting them up to the top of the erstwhile Barney's from across the street. (This elegant and symbolic moment was duly overshadowed by the subsequent salute to the city's canine population: Later that afternoon a Himalayan dog parade scampered down West 17th Street led by Afghan hounds, Lhasa Apsos, Tibetan terriers and a giant Tibetan mastiff.) But meanwhile Laurie Anderson's flag fluttered for a day next to those by Robert Barry, Louise Bourgeois, Ross Bleckner, Sarah Charlesworth, Pat Steir, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Tibetan artist Pema Rinzin.

Laurie's next visit to the museum was to hear some throatsingers, an astonishing trio of musicians called Chirgilchin, from the Siberian republic of Tuva. Huun-Hur Tu had unquestionably pioneered throatsinging in the States, but Chirgilchin, to my ears, had a finer tone, and boasted Mongun-ool Ondar who had mastered six of the twelve known throatsinging styles. They were also prepared to perform without microphones, which to me was always a test of a superior vocalist. Laurie came to their concert in June 2005, and was so taken by their vocal technique that she decided to take part in the following morning's throat-singing workshop. If you have never taken part in a throat-singing workshop, much of it takes place with your face bang up against a cherry-wood lined wall which emulating a monitor, allowing you to judge whether you have any ability to growl like a Kamchatka brown bear and whistle like a Siberian weasel simultaneously. "I was immediately entranced with Chirgilchin's incredible sounds -- both instrumental and vocal," Laurie declared. "I immediately attended their workshop and became more involved with their process. We bonded on several levels and began to make sounds that neither one of us would make on our own." And sure enough, listen closely, and you can hear them on to her album Homeland.

Her participation in the museum's life hasn't just been expressed musically. She confessed the pleasures of being clad in a flying squirrel suit with Mark Morris. She debated the virtues of fiction and non-fiction film forms with Wim Wenders. She questioned the meaning of zero with mathematician Charles Seife. She wrapped her head around the looping universe with astrophysicist Janna Levin. She confronted Neil Gaiman with his own memories. She contributed a mesmerizing video sculpture of her dog Lolabelle for a 2006 exhibition. And in this clip on view on GPS for the Soul, you can hear her surprise Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert with her story about working in McDonald's serving Happy Meals. Dan knows a thing about happiness. Apart from being ecstatic at being paired with Laurie for one of the Rubin's HappyTalks, he is the author of the bestselling Stumbling on Happiness.