Annie Lennox 'cleans house' with installation art show

Annie Lennox in front of a video projection at her new installation art show, which reveals a personal side of the musician.
Annie Lennox in front of a video projection at her new installation art show, which reveals a personal side of the musician.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK •Annie Lennox is talking about death. It is not morbid, nor is it vain, a celebrity's ponderous concerns about her legacy.

Instead, the former Eurythmics singer is matter-of-fact about being a woman of a certain age - 64 - and thus someone who has begun to look backwards rather than forward.

She is simply reminding us, in her earnest and rather sprightly way, that death comes for everyone.

"The one thing guaranteed us all, what is it?" she asks. "That we're going to die."

Such a statement may seem jarring, but since the 1990 break-up of the Eurythmics, the hugely successful pop music duo she led with Dave Stewart, Lennox's concerns have become more grounded and existential.

In the intervening decades, she has released only sporadic solo albums - one of which is titled Songs Of Mass Destruction - and taken time off to raise her two daughters.

Inspired, she said, by her experiences with South African political icon Nelson Mandela's 46664 campaign, she became an Aids activist, focusing on the plight of women and girls in Africa. She left behind the isolating force of fame for a chance to live and maybe make a difference in the world.

"In my time, I always thought that fame is a result of some really great thing you've done musically or artistically. It's just a symptom," she said during an interview in New York.

"You play into it to a degree, but then, what does it do to you? I have tried so hard not to let that monster eat me up. I've dipped in and I've dipped out. And it's the dipping out that has kept me human."

Lennox's humanity is the subject of her latest project, which reveals a more personal side of this musician that fans have not had a chance to see, in an entirely different medium: installation art.

Last weekend, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in Massachusetts, Lennox unveiled a 2.4m-high and 20m-long mound of earth containing nearly 250 objects she had acquired during her life - the make-up case she used while touring, her mother's sewing machine, a mask that was a gift from a boyfriend, Mexican Day of the Dead figurines, dozens of pairs of her children's shoes, and more.

The items are arranged in miniature displays that suggest associations and stories, and they are embedded throughout a heap of glitter-dappled dirt.

Atop the mound sits the object arguably most freighted with meaning: a piano. It is partially illuminated by a spotlight and set at a slight angle, like an off-kilter crown.

"The piano has been so, so, so significant all through my life," Lennox said. "Since I was three years old, and I was given a toy piano. I picked out tunes and my parents said, 'Oh my goodness, she's picking out tunes'. They identified that I had a musical gift."

The exhibition, titled Now I Let You Go..., represents a kind of cleaning house, both physically and emotionally.

"I cried!" Lennox said. "I was confused about what to show, what was relevant, what wasn't. But it's beautiful that I can do this. Because we don't have a ritual in the Western world for this. We just don't know what to do with what's left behind."

Show curator Alexandra Foradas observed that Lennox thinks about objects "almost like mnemonic devices" that prompt memories.

The mood in the gallery was hushed, the lighting low and dramatic. Slow and gentle piano melodies rang out - songs improvised by Lennox, who calls them "butterfly music" for their calming effect.

She has compiled them in an EP titled Lepidoptera, recorded years ago but released only now, free online, with the exhibition.

"I want to soothe people," she said.

The exhibition feels partly elegiac. The mountain of dirt recalls ancient burial mounds and mass graves in addition to an archaeological dig. It is accompanied by a field guide that features an introduction about the death of her great-aunt when she was a child.

She identifies some objects in the guide with personal notes - like a teddy bear she considered for the cover of her album Bare.

"He remains sad, pale and green till this day," she wrote.

Lennox said she hopes the installation will inspire reflection on "our common humanity".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline 'Annie Lennox 'cleans house' with installation art show'. Print Edition | Subscribe