If there’s any artist whose work fully embodies the feminist maxim “the personal is political,” it is Adrian Piper. For some 40 years, Piper has utilized forms and strategies of Conceptual art—text, charts, photo-documentation, seriality—and performance to explore perceptions of race, class and gender through an autobiographical lens. Piper has a PhD in philosophy from Harvard, and at Wellesley became the first African-American woman to gain tenure in the field. She gave up that secure position in 2008, refusing to travel home when she found herself on a U.S. “suspicious travelers” list; she remained abroad in Berlin, where she still resides. Such commitment to political principles is rare these days, and just as rarely praised, which makes “Past Time: Selected Works 1973-1995,” a survey of Piper’s most provocative efforts, not only admirable but brave. Gallerist Elizabeth Dee organized the exhibition on a floor of the old Dia building on 22nd Street.
The earliest work on view was a video documenting the infamous street performance Mythic Being (1973), in which a moustached and Afro-wigged Piper enacts the stereotypical macho behavior of the black male while repeating an incongruous statement taken from an old entry in her journal: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies and things, she does anyway, and says it’s for her, even if I always eat it. So I’ve decided to fast.” A fundamental commentary on the indeterminate, mutable nature of identity, the work juxtaposes image and text, self and other, to dissonant ends, which became a defining tactic of Piper’s practice. Represented here by a grid of documentary photographs, the performance It’s Just Art (1980) combines shots of the artist as the “Mythic Being” character with news images concerning the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Superimposed on each are white thought bubbles containing statements meant to confront viewers with the inconclusive and even impotent responses that political material, however powerful, often elicits (“You wonder why you’re being told Cambodia’s tragic story. . . . You already know about this unfortunate situation. . . . You read the papers, after all”).
While the main focus of “Past Time” was Piper’s signature use of text-image collage, two works showed her adeptness at sculpture as well. The Big Four-Oh (1988) is an installation that features, among other items, a dismantled suit of armor and jars of what is said to be piss, vinegar, blood, sweat and tears, arranged around a video of an endurance-based performance in which the artist dances alone to funk music, her back to the viewer. Vote/Emote (1990) comprises four voting booths with photographs of Civil Rights-era protesters where candidates would normally be listed. The booths contain notebooks that invite viewers to express their fears (“of what we might know about you,” “of how we might treat you”).
The most recent offering was Ashes to Ashes (1995). Created by Piper upon learning that an exhibition she was to participate in at L.A. MOCA was being sponsored by Philip Morris, the work consists of a typed story about her parents’ deaths from lung cancer, as well as photographs of each when they were young. The piece, not surprisingly, was rejected by the show’s organizers, and Piper refused to provide another option. Such refusals—to compromise, to censor herself, to provide agreeable work—are central to Piper’s practice and have made her an important, and controversial, artist for the past four decades.
Photo: Adrian Piper: Vote/Emote, 1990, wood, silkscreened lightboxes, notebooks and mixed mediums, 84 by 164 1⁄2 by 48 3⁄4 inches; at Elizabeth Dee.