Bright and early this weekend on the northwest corner of Prospect Park, tai chi enthusiasts, tattooed hipsters, unassuming passersby, and old friends of the late Lou Reed congregated at the front steps of the Brooklyn Public Library. It was 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning, and around the world, people were celebrating the inaugural Lou Reed Tai Chi Day. The Brooklyn edition of the event was planned in collaboration with Reed’s widow, the artist Laurie Anderson, who smiled peacefully over the crowd with her signature spiky hair as she led a morning meditation. Simultaneously, away from Reed’s hometown of New York, celebrations were ongoing in Berlin, Warsaw, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.
“It gives me a lot of power and grace,” Anderson told ARTnews over the phone, when speaking of the ancient Chinese martial art. “This is a very challenging time to be living. I don’t know how you’re doing in all this, but I need to get balanced every day. I feel very off-balance in many ways. So to have something that gives you a lot of physical confidence is really amazing.”
The event was led by Reed and Anderson’s teacher, Master Ren Guang Yi. Dressed in all black, he kicked off the day by leading the crowd through a tai chi form he invented specifically for Reed, called the 21-form, a “short form” of the Chen-family style, which is “more meditative [and] less dramatic or presentational,” Anderson explained. “Chen is pure power.”
The steps in 21-form are fast-flowing and minimal—Ren designed it for when Reed was on tour. “Notice the combination of hard and soft, of fast and slow,” Master Ren coached as participants cycled through different arm movements which were very slight. At first the exercises felt simple, but as the flow continued a warm pulse moved through the arms and back. As the city bustled in its usual chaos around the outdoor event, those participating were reminded of the fierce power in slow movements.
“This is relaxed athleticism,” Master Ren explained.
Reed began practicing tai chi in the 1980s, and Anderson joined him in the 1990s, around the time they met. Reed began by practicing the more athletic Wu style, which often employs tai chi weapons. The couple, who would eventually marry in 2008, began practicing the Chen Wu style with Master Ren after Anderson introduced him to Reed in the early 2000s. Several artifacts from Reed’s 30-year practice of tai chi are in display in the library, such as his broadsword.
“He was changing a lot at that point anyway, but I did see a big change in Lou [when he began practicing with Master Ren],” Anderson explained. “We were really trying to change ourselves. And he did.”
The event was scored by ambient music, from a sound installation presented by Anderson titled “DRONES,” which uses feedback from Reed’s guitars that are placed against amplifiers by Stewart Hurwood, Reed’s guitar technician. The humming guitars provided a bubble of protective sound around the event, like everyone was in a womb and hearing a heartbeat.
“He’s amazing,” Anderson said of Hurwood. “He’s able to work with all of the opening tunings and harmonics that Lou did. So it’s kind of like Lou being on stage.”
The programming turned into demonstrations of other forms of Chinese martial arts. The Shen Shing Men Pai form of kung fu was demonstrated by a group from Nyack, New York, and Yang, Wu, and Chen styles of tai chi were performed with paper broadswords and fans. Some of the performers in Master Ren’s class had trained directly with Lou in a partnered tai chi style, Reed’s preferred method, as shown in this video.
Currently, Anderson and Master Ren, along with others who practiced the art with Reed, are compiling a book of Reed’s writing on the martial art, titled The Art of the Straight Line. The book is slated to be completed next year.
“I have so few projects that are consistently so thrilling,” Anderson said. “It was a big influence [on my art practice], and it was a big influence on Lou, too. When Lou did tai chi, he was looking for magic.”