Adrian Piper

Generali Foundation

In 1992, just when a series of attacks on refugee camps was forcing a reunited Germany to confront its history anew, Adrian Piper made her first significant appearance in the German-speaking art world, with a solo exhibition at the Kunstverein München. The scandalous implications of the incidents at Hoyerswerda, Rostock, and elsewhere had a disturbing impact on the nation's liberal self-image, despite attempts by the media to minimize the events as acts by individuals. In this context, Piper's images and texts scored a direct hit, powerfully stirring many observers.

Now, ten years later, Piper's most comprehensive European retrospective to date has taken place at Vienna's Generali Foundation during another noteworthy political moment: a period of “normalization” following protests against a far-right party's participation in Austria's government. Unlike Munich, where curators intended Piper's show to be a political act, the Vienna exhibition (curated by the foundation's director, Sabine Breitwieser) is, at first glance, an art-historical repositioning of the African American artist as one of the most important women working today. Yet this exhibition is still political in a sense alluded to in the recorded monologue of a museumgoer looking at a photograph of black South Africans in Piper's 1978 installation Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma. “Here is your main concern,” she says. “To understand and recognize the work, to master it and fit it in with art you already know, that is, to come up with an appropriate comment about it at the appropriate time.” For within the current movement to canonize Conceptual and political art of the '60s and '70s, “mastering the work” first and foremost means historicizing it and subjecting it to a distanced gaze.

This gaze, however, has changed since the '70s; in a world that is driven toward excitement and recreation, many art spaces have changed into mere stage sets. Unprotected by the mellowing effect of historicization, installations like Four Intruders Plus Alarm System, 1980, would be highly disruptive. The unswerving gazes of four backlit portraits of black people are so straightforward as to be disconcerting; the accompanying monologues by fictional viewers may sound, to contemporary ears, as if they are being spoken by those formerly liberal politicians now putting their signatures on the latest anti-immigration laws.

In the arty spaces of today's entertainment culture, social heterogeneity and agitative political art are considered irritating—disruptions of a safe distance from unexpected events. The art that typically arises in these arenas is perhaps best described, to borrow the title of a 1976 Piper work, as Art for the Art World Surface Pattern, which was, not quite incidentally, positioned near the entrance of the foundation's retrospective. While the freestanding room appears on the outside to be a white cube, its interior is wallpapered with news clippings about political oppression; a recorded voice decries this violation of aesthetic contemplation. Nearly thirty years after its creation, the supposedly historical piece encounters prejudices that are commonplace and rediscovers stereotypes from which the art world has long since considered itself immune.

“I take the art itself, and my impulse to do it, to be generated by causes rather than by reasons,” Piper writes in a text for “The Mythic Being I–III,”1974-75. In this series of public interventions the artist appeared—cross-dressing with wigs, sunglasses, and a fake moustache to dissimulate her gender—in live performances and in advertisements placed among the gallery listings of the Village Voice. “Mantras” taken from her notebook appear in speech bubbles inserted in photographic documentation of her performances, appealing against the prejudicial structures of reading images. Piper plays a double game here, using the strategies of '60s Conceptual art to target a blind spot in the movement's criticism of Minimalism: namely, its universalist pretenses, which pretend to disregard gender and color. Against these, Piper presents herself, masked with grotesquely enhanced symbols of gender and culturally inscribed images, making it clear that recourse to any universalist model of the body is fruitless, since bodies are always already culturally interpreted.

Perhaps Piper's greatest contribution to Conceptual art has been her radicality in pointing out the exclusions that result from its abstractions—and doing so by means of Conceptual art itself. Her insistence on filling the abstract space of art with contemporary politics contaminates formalistic fantasies of purity and erects barricades against contemplation.

Piper regularly exhorts her audiences to analyze her works, whether in the dance-class performance Funk Lessons, 1982–84, or in image-text arrangements from the 1992 series “Decide Who You Are.” In My Calling (Card) #1, 1987–88, she addresses people directly as “you” and positions them in the “here” and “now,” while meeting them with a frontal gaze—a move that Piper calls indexical. This indexing was already present in her Sol LeWitt–influenced “Space-Time-Infinity” pieces and in her sound works of 1968, which examined the opposition between abstract timelessness and the concrete space in which an action is executed and understood.

Since that time, Piper has used grids and typewritten text, juxtaposed newspaper articles with documentary photographs and self-portraits, and placed direct speech alongside referential speech. Even such forceful works as Black Box/White Box, 1992, cohere formally and methodologically with Piper's overall production. The piece pairs the video footage of Rodney King's brutalization by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 with a recording of Marvin Gaye's 1971 song “What's Going On” and a 1992 speech by then president George H.W. Bush about sending troops into LA to quell protests in black communities. Piper places these in two minimalistic boxes, one black and one white. The King tape marked the intrusion of the real in a period defined by the media's celebratory highlighting of the Gulf War. In a present defined by the media omnipresence of the so-called War Against Terror, Piper's installation still stands out like a beacon.

“Adrian Piper Since 1965: Meta-art and Art Criticism” will be on view at the Institut d'Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, Jan. 15–Apr. 15, 2003; travels to the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, June–Sept. 2003.

Georg Schöllhammer is editor of Springerin.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.