Two questions that multimedia artist Laurie Anderson asks about creating art are: Why do something? et How do you know what's good? In her performances – conferences, spoken word and multimedia exhibitions – her work appears as though through a dreamlike bardo. She explores the unknown in definitely unique ways, shedding light on the unconscious and making connections between seemingly disparate aspects of the natural world, psyche, body, and consciousness. I've been an admirer of his work for four decades, but didn't know that until I saw his film. heart of a dog that she is also a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Even better than this discovery, I became more aware of Anderson's skillful explorations of embodied human experience through Tai chi, movement and deep kinesthetic study of all things physical, through all the senses, not just musical. As she says, “When your body is speaking, it's important to listen. »*
Seven years ago I started interviewing various artists about their process of creating art and any relationship it might have with meditative processes. Some of these artists were also meditators, others described ways in which they worked, involving various states of contemplation, inspiration and exploration. My curiosity stemmed from my own dual journey as an artist and a meditator. My undergraduate degree was in studio art, I focused on metal sculpting. I studied bronze casting and oxyacetylene welding. As a teaching assistant, I also taught welding as well as stone carving and aspects of bronze casting to new students. Although it has been a while since I have engaged in metal sculpting, the experiential alchemy of transforming metal from solid to molten state, however briefly, has remained alive. The process is meditative, single-pointed, magical.
Alchemy is magical and comes in many tangible and intangible forms. Music/sound is another art form which has always fascinated me and which has nourished my own journey as an artist. I interviewed various musicians about their process of creating compositions and performances. One of the musicians who has had a profound impact on my work and my life for four decades is Laurie Anderson. Not just a musician, she is a creator and explorer at the deepest levels of what it means to be human and what it means to feel, move, interact and create. Over the past two years, Anderson has created, among many other jaw-dropping projects, a series of “talks” (multimedia experiences) for the Norton Lecture Series at Harvard University. I am fascinated by these expressions of his unique perspective and relationship within the technological and natural worlds, and find myself laughing and crying unexpectedly through each one. Anderson expands the viewer's cognition and perception with a foundation of empathy that needs no explanation. She is a modern day terton for a world in confusion and pain, but still rooted in humanity and interdependence.
The connection between creative expression and the meditative path has fascinated me for a long time – probably since middle childhood – without my realizing it. I was a maker and artist from an early age, working in sculpture with ceramics, pottery, found objects and drawing. I spent a lot of time outdoors, collecting and manipulating found objects and natural elements such as leaves, roots, acorns, branches, and even working with snow, dirt , mud and water, as curious children do. Over time, I became interested in land art and performance art. As Anderson describes it, spoken word art, word art or performance art are very restrictive terms. In the Norton series, she explores multiple types of sensory perception and expression, often simultaneously, with the use of virtual reality technology. I see how these expressions and journeys she creates can be annoying to some people, but to me they are medicinal ways to experience my own mind: dream states, questions, complexities, ironies and anxieties of our modern world. In this particular moment, which some call post-pandemic or post-capitalism or postmodern, his offerings feel perfectly suited to acknowledging and allaying a certain existential angst.
I am a writer who describes art and artists' processes in words. This is a daunting task, as words alone cannot convey what artists bring into the world in non-verbal form. They employ wood, stone, metal, sound, pigment or film precisely because words are not enough or cannot express everything. And so I find myself challenged each time, and with a strong desire to start making art myself again. As an artist, finished products have never meant more to me than the process itself and the immediate aftereffect of the creative experience.
The satisfaction lay in the process of discovery, which sparked a Aha experience. Then, having to put on exhibitions and create galleries with artists' testimonials took a bit of my life. I really hated trying to put words to what I had created in bronze and steel, or paper and pigment. I expected the works to speak for themselves.
Making art or engaging in the creative process has strong parallels with engaging in meditation. In meditation, as well as in art or in everyday life, we may find ourselves doing things by rote, repeating the same mechanisms or entry points – our habitual tendencies. But during this habituation process, we may discover momentary bursts of something new, something fresh. In meditation, we can only expect to experience it once in a while, for brief moments. But by stringing them together, like a string of pearls, over months, years or lifetimes, we gather a feeling of freshness. We can reaccustom ourselves in new ways to the creative expression of the now or the true nature of reality, to use a Buddhist term. A frequent and completely fresh moment of experience is not something we commonly experience unless we are very stable practitioners or one of the many realized beings or hidden masters walking among us.
As Dharma writers, we tend to go down the same kind of rabbit holes, and it can become as stale as anything else in life. So my advice to meditators, as well as artists and writers, is to find new avenues to that feeling of childhood freshness—methods to bring us back to a beginner's state of mind. It can be doodling in the margins of a notebook or a brisk walk in the fresh grass after a rain. Or it could be a stream of consciousness writing or certain types of breathing or movement. Any of them could inspire the non-literal parts of our minds to work again, lending themselves to creating something new, artistically. It is the fresh state of a relaxed mind that the texts teach us and that the teachers guide us towards attainment. Of course, this accomplishment means letting go, a paradox in itself.
I find these lectures, these multimedia performances by Laurie Anderson, herself a meditator, deeply inspiring; they help reorganize my normal neural pathways. I have admired his work, which has given life to new artistic expressions, for many decades. Its combination of existing elements in new formats opens me up and changes my mind. And so I highly recommend participating in these videos and many more of his offerings: see them in a new light, not as mere entertainment or food for thought, but as real methods for engendering consciousness – the same consciousness of which the masters of meditation speak and write.
May you find joy, humor and pathos in these offerings of brilliant questioning and creation as well as surprising synaptic states of mind.
* Norton Lecture 1: The River | Laurie Anderson: Going through the war without you, part 1 of 6 (YouTube).