New York

Adrian Piper, Decide Who You Are #22: Field Work, 1992, triptych, photo-text collage, overall 11' 1/2“ x 6' 7”.

Adrian Piper, Decide Who You Are #22: Field Work, 1992, triptych, photo-text collage, overall 11' 1/2“ x 6' 7”.

Adrian Piper

Elizabeth Dee Gallery

Adrian Piper, Decide Who You Are #22: Field Work, 1992, triptych, photo-text collage, overall 11' 1/2“ x 6' 7”.

Adrian Piper’s exhibition “Past Time: Selected Works 1973–1995” was a compact survey comprising photo-text panels, installations, and a loop of wall-projected videos collectively given the fiercely immodest title The 20th Century Video Set, 1973–90. Grids and human figures, mostly in photographic grayscale and often flecked with red headlines, typified the look of hard-edged 1980s and early-’90s Conceptualism; documentation was on hand, too, of Piper’s wilder though still highly conceptual performances—such as The Mythic Being, 1973, in which she cruised public places sporting “threatening” signifiers, such as a bushy Afro, a handlebar mustache, and saucer-size sunglasses; and Funk Lessons, 1983, exercises in analytic boogie that she brought to college campuses in the ’80s. (Videos related to each screened in The 20th Century.) Piper’s selection demonstrated several things. To wit: The art of this former philosophy professor is best considered alongside her writings, something a gallery show can’t provide for in any depth; essays wait to be written on Piper and humor, Piper and confessionalism, Piper and authority; her genre of performance dramatizes identity but is not concerned with masquerade or the phenomenology of self.

To consider just the last: Piper rarely veers from the declarative mood. Her work evinces adamant confidence in its own pronouncements, and she leaves audiences little space in which to muse or play; rather, she studies the ethical conditions under which the social functions “I” and “you” interact. The viewer’s task (per the title of a 1992 series of photo-text triptychs, three iterations of which were on view here) is to “Decide Who You Are”—not as a private ego, but as a political agent. Piper’s work across the years has arraigned a “you” who is morally craven, if not violently racist; this entity’s counterpart is an “I” (sometimes a “we”) out to interrogate such behavior. LIST YOUR FEARS OF HOW WE MIGHT TREAT YOU, orders the prompt in one of four black-box booths in the modular sculpture Vote/Emote, 1990. “We” here refers, implicitly, to the crowds of African Americans in photos inside the booths; “you” is you, i.e., me, the viewer with pen in hand—unless it is all the other way around. (“No fears,” one respondent wrote in the notebook provided. “You will treat us with kindness.” “Kill me,” wrote another.) Harsh yet impersonal, these transactions of erasure and violence rhyme with Piper’s diary entry displayed in the installation The Big Four-Oh, 1988: “At forty I am barely visible, the ghost in the machine . . . ”

The “Decide Who You Are” works deal with social personae in even more complex ways. Each juxtaposes a drawing of see/hear/say-no-evil monkeys with an appropriated photograph—these range from horrific (a lynched black body in #11: Remains) to anodyne (an anonymous office staff of six smiling white men, two smiling white women, and one unsmiling black man in #22: Field Work). The third panel in each triptych features the photograph of a child who turns out to be Anita Hill, her uncertain grin overlaid with text that moves from disclaimer (IT’S FINE. I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN) through accusation (YOU TAKE EVERYTHING TOO PERSONALLY) to menace (YOU’RE DEAD MEAT). This “you” is unequivocally a victim. Which “you” is it, though? The chained corpse—or the mirthless middle manager? Cute Hill with her pigtails—or grown-up Hill, who springs immediately to mind if (and only if) a viewer learns who the child is? Maybe the gallerygoer, who hears the increasingly hysterical text in her mind as she reads? Or the artist who wrote that text? Mutatis mutandis, who does the speaker become? “You” and “I” are also “mythic beings,” ciphers in the volatile yet rigid mythos of race.

Frances Richard