Just Between Friends

Dawn Chan at the Annual Friends of Artists Space dinner

Trajal Harrell performing at the annual Friends of Artists Space dinner. (Photo: Dawn Chan)

SOME FUND-RAISERS, you can tell, are held together by the type-A wrath of a corporate-events planner. But not the annual Friends of Artists Space dinner, which is sweeter and much more interesting. It is held at the beginning of Frieze Art Week at the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village. There is no assigned seating. Everything unfolds leisurely, under the grand Art Deco¬–esque, mirrored ceiling of a banquet hall above the main restaurant, where old New Yorkers decide if they want their pierogies boiled or fried.

Last night’s dinner honored, in absentia, the artist, philosopher, and yogi Adrian Piper. As many know, she has refused to return to the United States since 2005, after being deemed a “suspicious traveler” on a TSA watch list. By underscoring the void she’s left, Artists Space gave fuel to a form of protest that seems particularly challenging: A body can always at least obstruct, in the worst case. But its sustained absence can’t do much, if others let it become forgotten. Piper did include the reproduction of a piece of hers from 1978, titled Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma, in the evening’s program, though. Its text leads you through an uncomfortably self-conscious monologue as you look at a photograph of black people, all in the context of art. If the digital world’s algorithmically protected echo chambers let people constantly slink back to a state of unexamined outrage, Piper’s artwork is needed more than ever for its ability to leave us seized with self-doubt.

According to Jay Sanders, newly at the helm of this nonprofit, Piper agreed to the suggestion to be honored “in this generative way,” as Sanders put it, by having “other artists presenting their own work that would speak, in whatever manner they chose, toward her work.” And indeed: The evening included a restaging of Trajal Harrell’s 2015 performance The Return of La Argentina, which hinges on movements drawn from Butoh and vogueing. (It’s worth noting that one of his costumes was a Comme des Garçons piece, which was more Kawakubo than most Met Gala attendees managed to pull off the night prior.)

Artists Richard Kennedy, Kyle Luu, and Stewart Uoo. (Photo: Dawn Chan)

Following Harrell—and braised fennel with saffron, and winsome remarks by Sanders—dancer and musician Richard Kennedy performed. His mix of looped vocals, processed into chords, evoked the a capella choral harmonies of American folk music. He sang lyrics such as, “There’s never a reason for violence against living things.” He explained to me that he was inspired by Piper’s iconic piece Catalysis III, 1970—where she went to Macy’s with WET PAINT painted on her clothes—and aimed to make something that would “disrupt the institution and represent the other.” He chose his outfit, by Iranian designer Pedram Karimi, to show solidarity with refugees and those banned from entering the US. “The material is very light and moves freely; unlike my refugee brothers and sisters in 2017,” he told me later.

Liam Gillick and Rachel Harrison, two board members, gave closing remarks. “It’s especially hard, these days,” Gillick said, “to create spaces of beauty and difficulty.” These days feels like a fraught term, these days. Almost exactly two years ago, down to the week, Piper unveiled her ongoing piece The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, at the Venice Biennale. Participants chose to sign agreements with rather ambitious terms: “I will always be too expensive to buy.” Or “I will always mean what I say.” Or “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” It feels like a different world now, one in which breaking contracts is passed off as a sign of business acumen. You have to wonder how the Probable Trust’s registrants are faring with their promises—and what vital, prophetic work Piper will make next.

Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans with dealer Maureen Paley. Right: Dealer Barbara Gladstone with Artists Space director Jay Sanders. (Photo: Artists Space)

Left: Dealer/writer John Kelsey, artist Seth Price, advisor Eleanor Cayre, and art historian Bettina Funcke. Right: Artist Michael Stipe. (Photo: Artists Space)

Left: Ronnie Sassoon with ICA London director Stefan Kalmar. Right: Artist Trajal Harrell. (Photo: Artists Space)