Laurie Anderson Essay

Artist and musician Laurie Anderson has directed Heart of a Dog, a feature film inspired by the life and death of her terrier Lolabelle, and dedicated to her late husband, Lou Reed. She is also guest director of this year’s Brighton festival.

Where are you right now? I’m told you’re somewhere in Brazil.
[Over the phone] I’m the only artist at an artists’ colony. I think some people cancelled because of the Zika virus. It’s in Bahia – I’m looking out at the beach now and trying not to talk to people in New York and gloat too much – it’s extremely beautiful.

You’re guest director of this year’s Brighton festival, where you’re doing a number of events yourself – including a concert for dogs.
I swore I’d never do another dog concert, because I didn’t want to be the Artist Who Does Concerts for Dogs. Now I am the Artist Who Does Concerts for Dogs, so OK. The one in Times Square was the shortest and coldest show I’ve ever done – it was really arctic, and it was at midnight. Homeland Security brought all their dogs – these huge, beautiful creatures, half the size of a human being, and they’re constantly moving. I said: “What’s with the dogs moving around?” They said: “You have to worry when they stop moving, because that’s when they smell a bomb.” They just freeze. And so do their handlers. It’s not like, “Oh my God there’s a bomb over here!” They just pick up their cellphone: [mutters in a security officer voice] “The dog has stopped moving…”

You’re also doing an event with Lou Reed’s guitars and amps.
That’s gonna be amazing. That sound is very intense. We’re opening that up to other musicians to come and jam. It’s the greatest sound to work with because there are really complicated harmonics and overtones – it’s powerful but very blank. It will be a combination of installation and performance. You don’t have to play anything – you could do tai chi, whatever.

You tell many personal stories in Heart of a Dog, about your family and people you’ve known. It sounds like it might all be true – is it?
It is true, yeah. It kind of set me off about a couple of things. A month ago somebody said: “I’ve got tickets for your Kennedy Center show – and I said: “What Kennedy Center show?” I’d forgotten about it. And I remembered a letter I’d written to (John F) Kennedy, and that was the core of the show. He was running for president, and I was a kid, and I wrote him a letter asking for his advice, and he sent me a very long letter giving me advice – political advice and personal advice. I think it was very calculated, but it made a big impression on me – to realise that you could write to someone like that and get an answer. But he was campaigning, you know, he was trying to get votes. He got my vote.

There’s only one rule with Buddhism, and it’s the same rule you have as an artist, which is to be aware. That’s it

Laurie Anderson

What did your terrier, Lolabelle, mean to you? In the film she seems to be at once a pet, a friend and an alter ego.
It’s a film about empathy. Lolabelle was a character that was almost pure empathy, so I tried to express that as well as I could. She was not my best friend – I didn’t want a piano-playing dog necessarily. I wanted to find a way to help her because when she went blind, she didn’t do well at all, she panicked. This trainer said: “I taught my dogs to play piano,” and I said: “Whoah – OK!” And she said: “I think it really helps Lolabelle.” So there were concerts every day, and she was playing this stuff, and it was really a situation where music saved her life. She basically recovered her social world through music.

There’s a wonderful shot at the end of the film with her and Lou Reed snuggled up close. Most people probably wouldn’t think of him as a dog person.
He was a dog person. He knew a lot about dogs, he went to (New York’s) Westminster dog show every year. He had dogs all his life and loved them. He had many dogs and Lolabelle was very dear to him. Our vet said to us: “We’ll have to put Lolabelle down, because she’ll have to live in an oxygen tent for the rest of her life.” Lou said: “Where do you get an oxygen tent?” And we got one that day, and she lived for another year. Lou was always someone who would say “Why?” and “What?” and “Why are you saying that?” He was a real fighter, and he loved to solve things. It was a great experience for both of us to be with her. She was a really great old dog. She taught me a lot about how to be old.

The film shows how you found wisdom about death in Buddhism – and a lot of comedy too.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is “life is suffering” – which puts off a lot of people. But I would have to say the happiest people I know are Buddhists, to make a gross, crazy generalisation. It’s been a really interesting thing for me to study – how to do things without ambition but still have the pleasure of making things. I’ve learned a lot from that way of… it’s not exactly thinking, and it’s certainly not believing, because you don’t have to believe in anything if you’re a Buddhist. There’s only one rule, and it’s the same rule you have as an artist, which is to be aware. That’s it.

You did a show last October at the Armory in New York, Habeas Corpus, with the former Guantánamo inmate Mohammed el Gharani. How did that work?
I was so happy to get a chance to do that. We built a film studio in Africa and beamed his image from there to the Armory [in New York] – it had some beautiful visual components, and it was live. It was amazing what happened. He could see the audience as well, and have contact with them. He was a person who spent his life from 14 to his early 20s being tortured and in prison, and being addressed only as a terrorist or as an inmate, and suddenly he was an art collaborator. It was an amazing experience for me to get to know him. It’s only through an art project that you can get to be a collaborator with a goat-herder from Saudi Arabia. We have Guantánamo Bay detention centre to thank for that.

And now, apparently, you’re planning large landscape paintings?
[Laughs] Look at it this way – the canvases are stretched but I haven’t got there yet.

The Brighton festival runs from 7-29 May; brightonfestival.org. Heart of a Dog is released on 20 May; the soundtrack is available now on Nonesuch Records

Artist Laurie Anderson offers a personal essay centering on her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle in Heart of a Dog. Courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films hide caption

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Courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

Artist Laurie Anderson offers a personal essay centering on her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle in Heart of a Dog.

Courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

"You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad," Laurie Anderson's Buddhist teacher told the performance artist after the loss of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle.

Anderson's new film, Heart of a Dog, is in part a personal essay that tries to figure out what that injunction means, and how to live up to it in the wake of multiple losses. You don't have to be a Tibetan Buddhist or a pet lover, though, to spend 75 enthralling minutes with the endlessly associative contents of Anderson's head and heart.

And she's wise to the potential for sentimental self-indulgence in making a feature-length film about either her departed pooch or her guru, though the former has a starring role and the latter an advisory one. An animated prologue in which Anderson dreams she has sewn Lolabelle into her abdomen so that she can be born like a human child clues us in to how far she will go toward whimsy before backing up into something at once more rigorous and soulful in the artful stream of consciousness that is Heart of a Dog.

We learn that Anderson loved Lolabelle to distraction, as she did her husband, rocker Lou Reed, who died of liver disease in 2013 and to whom she dedicates the film. She loved her late mother no less intensely, though with a haunting ambivalence that's just one of the painful threads she follows, in this case to a new appreciation of her mother's backhanded way of loving her back. Perhaps, too, mortality is on Anderson's mind because she's 68 years old, an age when even the healthy must confront the urgency of living life forward and understanding it backward. In case you were wondering, Kierkegaard gets a cameo, along with Wittgenstein and Reed himself, who plays a doctor in a wacky hospital sequence.

If that makes Heart of a Dog sound abstract, it's anything but. Along with the common hurts and losses that accrue to all of us with time, a couple of vivid childhood traumas pop up in Anderson's film that will make you skip a breath, though not because she's out to ratchet up the drama. These formative events receive equal weight with Lolabelle's painting and piano lessons and Anderson's thoughts on how and when life really ends, all guided by a matter-of-fact voiceover in her Midwestern, musical alto.

Heart of a Dog is the kind of film that attracts labels like "experimental," and I suppose it is, in its mixed-media collage of home movies, newsreel and CCTV footage, re-enactments and intertitles, backed by a lyrical score Anderson composed herself. Her sense of time, space, theme and reality is non-linear and digressive. But she also knows how to connect the dots into stories that don't feel in the least inaccessible or choppy, except perhaps in repeated segues to reveries about the post-Sept. 11 surveillance society that feel jarringly inorganic and nowhere as fresh or lively as her musings on Lolabelle's death or her mother's, or on how to properly mourn someone you've lost. (Crying is not allowed; giving stuff away is encouraged.)

Radical or not, Heart of a Dog is the ultimate realist narrative. It flows along, mimicking the continuous, fleeting, fragmentary flow of consciousness, the haze that lies between sleeping and waking, even between death and whatever lies behind it. And you don't have to follow Anderson into Buddhism to admire the common touch of the questions she poses. "What are the last things you say in your life, before you turn into dirt?" she asks, and lets that bracing question hang in the air for a bit before taking it in a direction you don't expect. There's more than one answer, by way of her dog and her mother, and she's as funny as she is bereft by the loss of both. I was completely undone by a moment in which an otherwise withholding mother chose exactly the right moment to tell her small daughter what an excellent swimmer she was. In a movie that's often heartbreaking but never long-faced, you, too, might find yourself feeling, you know, sad without being sad.

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