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Brighton Festival: Laurie Anderson - Slideshow, Brighton Dome | reviews, news & interviews

Brighton Festival: Laurie Anderson - Slideshow, Brighton Dome

Brighton Festival: Laurie Anderson - Slideshow, Brighton Dome

The great performance-artist riffs superbly on stories, space and home

A light in the darkness: Laurie Anderson

Brighton Festival’s guest director speaks in a sort of rapid-fire drawl, ideal for her debut as a stand-up comic, which she claims was tonight’s Plan A. This half-century veteran of performance art is more slippery than that, proffering a discursive, unreliable, funny and profound master-class in shaggy-dog philosophy, with the festival’s theme of home at its arguable core.

The hit single “O Superman” was Laurie Anderson’s vital calling-card to pop culture, her marriage to Lou Reed a brief downtown New York art nirvana, addressed elsewhere in the festival. But the life she zigzags through tonight is one of gratefully seized opportunities and extraordinary adventures, undertaken by a brilliant nebbish. This charmingly self-deprecating character puts the phone down on NASA when they ask her to be their artist-in-residence. Once she’s believed her luck, she finds herself in the control room as contact is made with Mars probes, and observes scientists imagine “giant art projects” she envies, and con the public with beautifully coloured, painterly photos from colourless outer space, because “we thought people would like it”. In a digital version of the old-fashioned show-and-tell of tonight’s Slideshow title, pictures and film mirror and counterpoint her finely modulated yarns.

There are two jokes, one excellent, told with Woody Allen timing. And there are fascinating digressions, from a summary of Aristophanes’ The Birds to the life of Leo Marks, of the bookselling family immortalised in 84 Charing Cross Road, as a World War Two poet-cryptographer. Anderson’s own attempted solitude in a hellish Amish kitchen, and on a river with a garrulous incest survivor group (“Martyrs and control freaks and sad people and...losers” too close to herself), are tales so tall they’re surely, with however much gonzo garnish, true.

Truth, home and memory are investigated as Anderson ranges through a Midwest childhood which seems a greater clue to her character than the decades in New York. One of eight siblings left to their own devices (she and a sister make their own sandwiches, leave then return to marvel at their mum’s thoughtfulness), she almost drowns her twin brothers when their pram sinks under a lake’s cracked ice, but dives down to save them. Headstrong, fearless and attention-seeking, a back-flip from a diving-board aged 12 hits concrete, not water, and a doctor tells her she’ll never walk again. This teaches her to disbelieve authority. But as she sinks into her personal mythology’s painful reality, she disbelieves it too. “Your story – you hold onto it,” she says. “And every time you tell it, you forget it, more.” Back turned, she plays her treated violin, and snow falls on a melancholy, wooded scene.

The closing passage of a near-two-hour show which gets half-way through her intended subjects homes in on the word “home”, co-opted by the Department of Homeland Security. The tone darkens greatly as she explains Habeas Corpus, an artwork made in collaboration with Mohammed al Gharani, pictured above with Anderson, a Saudi computer student held and tortured among Guantanamo’s innocent and suicides for seven years. The jet-black, grubby evil of the way her nation operates, even as it produces shining lights like Laurie Anderson, is her final thought on home.

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