New York

Adrian Piper

Elizabeth Dee Gallery

For her first solo show in New York after a seven-year hiatus, influential first-generation Conceptualist Adrian Piper, known for infusing her rigorous practice with the concerns of identity politics, focused on impermanence and loss. Piper presented a selection from a series begun in 2003 titled “Everything,” short for “Everything will be taken away,” a chilling apocalyptic statement that is inscribed on most of the works. The show was thrilling and disturbing but above all confounding; there was nothing here to indicate why she had been quiet for so long. But that, it seemed, was part of the point.

On entering the gallery, visitors encountered Everything #19.2, 2007, a mesmerizing video featuring two news clips (sourced from YouTube and drained of color and sound) that recount the kidnapping, rape, and torture last year of an African-American woman, Megan Williams, by six white West Virginians. The work obliquely references the media’s shamefully inadequate coverage of this crime, an act of violence that prompted outrage across the country. However, Everything #19.1, 2007, an entire wall painted with the first published reportage of the Williams case—an article from the Associated Press that neglects to mention the location of the offense—gestures toward this silence more directly.

Two installations, both presented on long walls and featuring wallpaper printed with the phrase EVERYTHING WILLL BE TAKEN AWAY, bracketed Everything #19.1 and imparted valuable historical context. To the left, printed very faintly, was Everything #18, 2007, which features images of pages from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in a grid around a tombstone-shaped recess (Everything #5, 2007). To the right was Everything #6, 2007, which incorporates images of the faces of six assassinated American leaders, from Lincoln to RFK. On a separate wall facing the Williams text was Everything #9.1, 2007, a grid of nine prints. Five of these images, including snapshots of a cat on a bed, a window, and a doorway, have been scrubbed to the point of near-eradication with steel and rubber, and form an X around four images of demolished homes and floods caused by Hurricane Katrina. Complex and somber, the room, like much of the show, felt like a memorial.

Although these works made their debut here, New Yorkers might recall reading Piper’s phrase before. In late 2006, four partially erased personal photographs featuring the forbidding mantra cropped up in a group show at this gallery. For Everything #10, 2006, which Piper produced last May for the public art nonprofit organization Creative Time, it was painted backwards on volunteers’ foreheads in henna, confronting them with a slow-dissolving memento mori every time they looked in a mirror. In this show, however, text and its accompanying imagery offered a scathing, multilayered critique of American racism. By coolly recalling recent natural disasters and man-made atrocities, as if to mimic our own distance from them or “perform” the media’s offhand treatment, Piper subtly highlights the fine line between private and public loss and how deeply the knife cuts both ways.

Through a mixture of openness and aloofness, then, Piper’s new work examines issues of race, sex, class, and ethics, but, perhaps most intriguingly of all, also incorporates the Hindu philosophies behind the artist’s long-standing yoga practice. The lone quote Piper offers in the press release notes her detachment from “all the relationships, communities, values, and practices that make anomaly and ostracism possible.” While the connection between Piper’s new work and her supposed distancing from such divisiveness is murky at this point, one hopes that her return to New York was more than fleeting. Because although Piper seems to prefer living off the art-world grid, what is her absence but a major loss?

Lauren O’Neill-Butler