For the last several years, Buddhism has become something of a media phenomenon in America, with best-sellers, magazine spreads, big-budget Hollywood movies and celebrity spokespersons vying for bandwagonesque pre-eminence and faddish cachet. Like many eventually hip things, Buddhism has been a particular influence on artists for a long time. While much early infatuation may be chalked up to the colonialist taste for exotic dishes, the 20th century has seen a comparatively profound and complex engagement between Western art and Buddhist tradition. And although spirituality has been considered politically and socially indecorous in fine-art circles for several decades, the current popular climate (in cahoots with the malnutritious fare of irony-curdled decorations that passes for art these days) has forced a loosening of this embargo, at least toward non-Western spiritual traditions. What got me thinking about this was three very different current or upcoming art events, each of which offers a more substantial numinous experience than we‘re used to getting in the galleries.
Laurie Anderson occupies a unique and not entirely enviable position in popular culture. To most people, she epitomizes that zany ’80s fad called “performance art,” alongside Karen Finley and Her Amazing Yams or Darryl Hannah‘s pyromaniacal turn in Legal Eagles. It is also remembered that she had an MTV hit in the early days, though she was unable to sustain her high profile as a singer-songwriter. To the art world, she is that most monstrous of entities — an artist whose mass audience has lifted her above the need to curry favor among critics, dealers and collectors in order to survive. And so, while her place in the long history of performance, and the tangential relationship between her records and the Total Artwork from which they derive, are perhaps better understood in this context, her work is generally dismissed on the grounds of its popularity — it’s hard to be both unironic and elitist about crowd-pleasing art.
Responding to the chaotic frenzy of constant touring, the industry‘s demands for new product, and the disproportionate emphasis placed on her “gee whiz” multimedia presentations over their poetic verbal, visual and theatrical cargo, Anderson steadily retreated from the Big Time. After 1986’s Home of the Brave, her recordings and performances became increasingly spare and intermittent (with a commensurate downsizing of her fan base, but no forgiveness from the smart set), culminating in her minimalist Voices From Beyond tour, using only a single projected image and almost no popular-song structures. Having reclaimed ground zero of the ancient storytelling roots of her artwork, Anderson has gradually proceeded to reintegrate the razzle-dazzle technology that wowed her audiences in the early ‘80s.
It hasn’t been until now, with her upcoming performance of Songs and Stories From Moby Dick at UCLA‘s Royce Hall, that she has elected to take on a narrative as deeply and complexly American as her own landmark United States I–IV. Melville’s transcendental parable — a stark allegory of mystical transformation told through a bewildering patchwork filigree of anecdotal asides and philosophical ruminations — is particularly suited to Anderson‘s modus operandi. Featuring collaborations with a large group of performers and designers, and incorporating state-of-the-art electronics and visual effects, Moby Dick promises to deliver a substantial sensory wallop rooted in a single powerful, and familiar, metaphor.
While she keeps it in the background, Anderson’s long-standing Buddhist practice informs her work at a deep level. Many of the concerns addressed in the work — the mechanisms of symbolic and linguistic communication and how they act to delimit our experience of reality, in particular — are near the core of the Dharma. The cycling, repetitive dynamic of her performances strongly evokes the arising and passing away of phenomena observed from a contemplative state of mind, while the parablelike quality of her stories and pictures unfolds into complex multiple meanings, not the least being a wildly irreverent humor. The calming effects of meditation have also undoubtedly instilled in her a patience for putting up with dissing from the ‘80s-phobic art world, but with what promises to be her most spectacular performance work in a decade (as well as the reissue of her acclaimed Voyager CD-ROM Puppet Motel, the Moby Dick album on Nonesuch and a forthcoming career-retrospective volume from Abrams), she’ll regain the respect that got lost in the hype.
Elsewhere in L.A. lotusland, the Armand Hammer is hosting a unique and profoundly different view of visual-art production as monks from Drepung Loseling Tibetan monastery perform the meticulous ancient ritual of mandala sand painting. Presented as part of the Dalai Lama‘s World Festival of Sacred Music, the dul-tson-kyil-khor, or “mandala of colored powders,” allows Westerners a glimpse of an art practice permeated with many levels of meaning — functioning individually, socially, spiritually and religiously. While operating as an exquisite aesthetic object, an intricate geometric kaleidoscope of images sometimes made from only a few grains of colored sand, the mandala is also an example of Tibet’s highly tuned shamanic technology of consciousness alteration. Quite apart from the baroquely codified symbolic meanings of each color, shape and symbol, the mandala, when stared at for long enough, is designed to transform into a three-dimensional vision of a shining gated palace, which must be negotiated to its center to arrive at enlightenment (hence the performance‘s subtitle, The Architecture of Enlightenment). It is sad that Americans have no equivalent artistic experience available to them, and there is always a bittersweet frisson accompanying the attendance of the dul-tson-kyil-khor by middle-class white intellectuals. This aching chasm reaches a peak and a resolution at the close of the five-day ritual, when the monks conduct a ceremony involving gut-wrenching overtone chanting, sweep up the sand, and return it to the sea in acknowledgment of the transitory nature of all good stuff. We have some catching up to do.
Further east, a somewhat different twist on Orientalism is manifesting itself in the small cluster of contemporary artist-run spaces that have opened up in Chinatown over the last year. Surreally embedded in the picturesque peeling storefronts of pedestrian-only Chung King Road, the Black Dragon Society, like New China Arts up the block before it, has adopted the name that came with the space, and run with it. To open the former kung fu studio’s second season, Los Angeles‘ favorite free-range Zen cowboy and gooshy minimalist painter, James Hayward, has curated a show of more than three dozen L.A.-based abstract painters titled Under 500, referring to the maximum square inches of canvas participants were allowed to submit. Although the Black Dragon’s core membership, which reads like a heretical ninja splinter group from Ace gallery, has enough connections to pull in local painting heroes such as Ed Moses and Carl Benjamin, more than half the show is devoted to lesser-known or recently graduated artists. And there are probably three times as many where they came from.
In spite of its currency as L.A.‘s house style, much abstract painting continues deeply underground due to its lack of ironic and dissipated self-loathing, the trademark of its more acceptable kin. In spite of the return of imagery brought about by Pop Art, nonrepresentational painting has maintained a strong and continuous process since its heyday in the 1950s, evolving along innumerable hidden byways like a secret religious cult. A lot of the energy needed to keep working under such circumstances is attributable to the frankly spiritual tone of the rationalizations and intended effects of much of the work. While some of the superficial beatnik-Buddhist affectations surrounding the genre can be unconvincing or downright embarrassing, the commitment to the reduction of painterly activity to its simplest components, to bridging the gap between thought and action, and to finding a structure in which every gesture is luminous, spontaneous and clear, is undeniably manifest in the material presence of the paintings themselves. Services are held Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m.