Laurie Anderson’s Parallel Universe

The best of virtual reality in visual art today
Laurie Anderson was captured at Guild Hall recently in front of her monumental drawing “June 5th,” from her series “Lolabelle in the Bardo.” Daniel Gonzalez Photos

If the word of mouth hasn’t reached your ears yet, there is an exhibition in East Hampton that incorporates the best of virtual reality in visual art today, taking it to a place that automatically sets the bar higher and redefines its possibilities as an artistic medium.

Laurie Anderson’s “Aloft” and “Chalkroom,” which are being offered this summer at sites as diverse as North Adams, Mass., and Tasmania, in addition to Guild Hall, were created with Hsin-Chien Huang, a Taiwanese artist she first met in the early 1990s. “Chalkroom” won the premiere award for best VR experience at the Venice Film Festival last year.

It was Mr. Huang’s idea to collaborate on the project, she told The Sydney Morning Herald: “I don’t really like the bright, flat, and brittle gaming world.” She wanted something “dustier, weirder, and more like being in your own mind.” The result was “Chalkroom.”

“Chalkroom” offers several choices of experiences, different rooms, and opportunities to fly. “Aloft” is more straightforward. As you’re seated on a plane, it breaks apart and you are free to float in the atmosphere as objects loom toward and around you. 

In the past few years, some less commercial art fairs have hosted galleries that presented VR pieces, marked by that super-bright gamelike quality Ms. Anderson described. One piece at last year’s Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial exhibition attracted attention for its violent subject matter. Jordan Wolfson’s “Real Violence” created a street scene in which a virtual beating takes place. The world of Ms. Anderson and Mr. Huang, however, is truly one of their own invention.

Taken out of context, each VR experience can stand on its own. Guild Hall could have presented them that way as well, a summer sideshow to another entirely different exhibition. Instead, Christina Strassfield, the director of the museum and its chief curator, devotes the other main gallery to large-format drawings from Ms. Anderson’s series “Lolabelle in the Bardo,” inspired by the death of her dog in 2012 and her dedication to the practices of Buddhism. There is also a video viewing room where patrons can lounge on giant beanbags or sit on benches along the back wall while a selection of her video work is played. Included is “Heart of a Dog,” a feature-length meditation that explores love and loss through an expressionistic tableau of her own musings, facts and figures, artwork, and more Buddhist teachings. 

When considered in this milieu, the VR pieces seem more akin to reflections on the afterlife. With “Aloft,” it is hard not to think of the crash of TWA Flight 800 (which took place some two decades ago just 35 miles away in the water off East Moriches) as the walls of the aircraft begin to dissolve. The crash caused many to wonder what it felt like to be suspended in the sky before falling into the sea. This piece offers a chance to contemplate that experience anew in a far less terrifying way. In “Chalkroom,” the user chooses the experience, but the otherworldliness of the rooms conjures a post-death landscape, perhaps an in-between state not unlike the Bardo. 

Her charcoal drawings, each 11 by 14 feet, with their explanatory text accompaniment, could be a large-format adult picture book. They are immersive and larger than life in many instances. In “June 5,” Lolabelle’s giant rat terrier face looms over the space. Other drawings, each titled with a date after the dog’s death, depict various stages of her passage through the Bardo.

Anyone who has lost a significant other, best friend, close relative, or treasured pet (or all of the above) will come away from these experiences, particularly the “Heart of a Dog” film, woozy and somewhat untethered. Encountering them all in the same afternoon can be overwhelming, but worth the disquiet that might result. Ms. Anderson is a mesmerizing guide and tracker in these worlds she has created. She speaks to a part of the brain that seems deeper than waking consciousness. Those who follow her will be richer for the experience and perhaps subtly transformed by these series of worlds, even after they re-emerge into the bright light of a summer day.

After taking a while to catch on, there are now often waits for the VR experiences, which can be reserved through Guild Hall’s website for specific time slots. It is well worth reserving and going before the exhibition closes on July 22.

Artwork from the "Chalkroom"