Laurie Anderson’s work has always looked for the cosmic in the mundane (and the mundane in the cosmic), but she has never achieved such a deep resonant chord as in “The End of the Moon,” a staged report of her year as NASA’s first (and, as it turned out, last) artist in residence.
A beautifully modulated series of vignettes, “The End of the Moon” moves from wonder to dismay, leavened with humor and concluding with a guarded optimism.
The performance begins with a prologue, as Anderson sits in a large club chair and muses about the nature of beauty and life. The latter, she claims, is sometimes too close to “bad art written by too many writers,” where “people die for no reason and in no particular dramatic order.” Such themes recur in the piece, as the 9/11 attacks are never far from her thoughts.
Impressed by the colors in photographs of deep space taken by the Hubble telescope, she is surprised to find the pictures are re-created from digital information and the colors chosen by the scientists because they think people will like them — “and you call me the artist in residence,” she responds incredulously.
She is shown the latest spacesuits and is amazed by the innovations, including fibers that increase the strength of the wearer and inject him with adrenaline or morphine, depending on the situation. But she’s troubled when she discovers the suits are no longer being developed for NASA but for the Defense Dept., so “instead of going into outer space, they will be sent to the desert, to the war.”
As usual, there are discursive byways to the evening, but Anderson always manages to find her way back to the subject at hand. In the most touching anecdote, she leaves New York to find some relief from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. But reality returns when her dog is surprised by some predatory birds. The look on the dog’s face is strangely familiar, she says, and then she realizes where she’s seen it before: It’s the look New Yorkers had after the attacks, when they realized death can come from the sky.
On a lighter note, there is a charming story of her attempt to write an opera based on Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” She tracked down the famously reclusive novelist, who claimed to be interested in the project but had some conditions: It must be scored for one instrument, a banjo. “Some people have the nicest ways of saying no,” she concludes.
The stories are interspersed with some of Anderson’s prettiest, and most mournful, violin solos; while she has trimmed the multimedia portions of her performance, there were still some arresting visuals. When she describes her regret over not riding on NASA’s “vomit comet,” a zero-gravity simulator, a miniature camera projects her image upside down on the screen beside her. She holds the same camera during a violin solo, and the closeup image of the bow moving across the stings looks otherworldly, like the images of light being bent in space.
The evening’s political nature was apparent from the start, as she told the aud she’s a “bad loser” and unsure of her reaction to Tuesday’s election results. But she ended up expressing optimism, hoping the groups that came together during the race will remain vigilant.