As I left Adrian Piper’s “Concepts and Intuitions” at the Hammer museum, I noticed a series of wooden structures resembling voting booths positioned outside of the exhibit’s entrance. I walked into one of the private booths steadying myself as I prepared to write in the binder that was resting on a shelf in front of me. The blank page stared back at me for a full minute, paralyzing me with a simple prompt:
“List the fears about what we might think of you.”
My eyes darted from the words to a photo framed in a windowpane that hovered above the binder containing the blank pieces of paper; It was an image of a group of black men and women descending stairs while walking toward the camera. One of the men appeared to be pointing in my direction and suddenly, the “we” in the prompt became much more specific. In that moment, the weight of my response became too heavy for me to justify taking up that much space on the page, and I slowly turned around and walked out of the booth.
When the Hammer announced that it was bringing Adrian Piper’s show “Concepts and Intuitions” to Los Angeles, I blithely commented that L.A. simply wasn’t ready for what Piper was going to challenge visitors to do. My comment was aimed directly at L.A.’s hyper-influenced culture vultures who will flock to an exhibit or an artist at the behest of an actor, Instagram, or a celebrity.
When I walked out of that booth after experiencing the exhibition, I realized my smug comment could have easily applied to me, because in that moment *I* wasn’t ready. The exhibition, which spans 51 years of the artist’s career, was undoubtedly the most mentally exhausting show I attended all year.
Piper explores the psychological and social dynamics of race, identity, and perception in conceptual work that challenges how these unconscious beliefs and behaviors shape how we interact with others, particularly in unfamiliar environments.
The survey presents illustrative work the artist created in her teens, conceptual text, and photography-based work that she began to show internationally while attending the School of Visual Arts, and video installations that leverage her Philosophy and Musicology studies. Piper earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and has written several essays and books that harmonize her artistic practice with her rigorous academic work.
I was already armed with the effusive critical acclaim that the show’s N.Y. iteration, a “Synthesis of Intuitions” had received, and somewhere along the line, I had read that Piper, who now resides in Germany, frequently challenges and responds to those reviews. She’s intellectually intimidating in a way that elicits fear and adoration.
As a writer with a mission of making art both relatable and understandable to people who don’t regularly engage with contemporary art, Adrian Piper presents a unique challenge: simply put, I’m scared shitless to talk about her work.
And that takes me back to Piper’s very personal call to action: “List the fears about what we might think of you.” After giving this some thought in the weeks that followed my visit, I would say the first fear on my list is that I’m afraid that you are going to call me out as a fraud for even attempting the intellectual exercise of interpreting and dismantling her work. In time I realized that this is all that she’s asking us to do here-make an independent attempt. This is precisely why I love Piper’s work. She’s going to make you uncomfortable at times, but if you take a moment to sit with that discomfort, something may reveal itself to you. In business negotiations, I was always taught to embrace awkward silences, because when you do, you are open to listening and actively hearing the person you are speaking with.
One thing that I’ve learned from writing about art over the years is that fear is a closed door; by reframing that fear through confronting it, I’ve created opportunities for growth. When I experience work that’s challenging, I try not to immediately dismiss it, and I look for something familiar in the work. The brilliance of having such a densely curated, comprehensive show like this is that Piper has a captivating way of connecting with her audience through diverse artistic mediums including painting, sketching, video, photography, text, performance, and sound. Throughout the exhibition, Piper’s musicology background resonated with me, bringing an uncontrolled smile to my face with her video installations.
In Funk Lessons, Piper filmed a collaborative performance piece on dance at U.C. Berkeley in 1983. In a ballroom setting, Piper gave participants some rudimentary dance instructions, but everyone in the room felt free to improvise and simply feel the music.
During the piece, she subtly subverts the merriment to introduce a concept that governs her philosophical and artistic practice. Her work encourages viewers to find familiarity in the unfamiliar. As participants gleefully dance about, some rhythmically stuck on the 1 and 3, an interviewer asks Piper about the long-held notion that white folks can’t dance. The artist commented, “It’s just a matter of practice. If you grow up in a culture where dancing and being attuned to a beat is part of what you do every day, you get good at it and it gets easy. If you grow up in a culture where you don’t do that, then it’s hard.” By creating a safe space to explore an unfamiliar genre of music, she makes a case for situating art, or in this case unfamiliar situations within a familiar context. Piper, as the exhibition catalogue notes, “breaks down the cultural history and mechanics of funk in a way her audience can relate to, helping them move through any initial anxiety they may have…” (1)
The willingness to sit with that feeling of unfamiliarity or discomfort, instead of rejecting it is the emotional place where her work begins. In subsequent works Piper is more direct in challenging viewers with discomfort. In “Cornered”, a group of chairs face an upturned table with a television screen on top. The screen is placed in a corner of the gallery and is flanked by two different copies of her father’s birth certificate dated June 5th, 1911. One describes him as “white”, while the other describes him as “octoroon”, or 1/8th black, harkening to a time where the chasm between these two classifications was significant. The presence of the two birth certificates conjures the vestiges of the “one drop rule” dating back to the 1662 Virginia law that declared that any child born to an African slave and a white slaveholder would be assigned the race of the non-white parent. This distinction became a problematic one well after the Civil War for white people looking for justifications to categorize people under binary constructs of race.
On the television screen, Piper wears a blue sweater and pearls with her long hair conservatively pulled back on the sides. She crosses her arms and addresses the camera saying, “I am black. Now let’s deal with this social fact and the fact of me stating it, together.” She anticipates the viewers defensiveness by stating their objections and challenging them. In doing so, she draws conclusions based on these assumptions and ultimately redirects the responsibility of reconciling that conflict back to the viewer. Looking at this 1988 piece through a current lens, one could easily see Piper’s monologue begin with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter…” and continue as originally written, having the exact same impact.
Throughout the show Piper uses text and photography based work that continue to illuminate entrenched conventions that perpetuate problematic modes of thought. This was most profoundly and timely executed in Decide Who You Are #1. In the piece, a black and white photo of a young Anita Hill is enveloped in red text. Reading through the statements harkens back to the early stages of the #MeToo movement when victims of sexual assault and harassment bravely shared their experiences and were met with dismissive resistance. Piper’s work was created in 1992 affirming quite presciently that the needle of justice on women’s issues and the abuse of power has not moved substantively in the years to follow.
There is so much about the show that I want to say, but to distill even a sliver of the 270 works within a single post feels like boiling the ocean. The show resonated with me on a visceral level, and personally, Piper reminds me of someone in my family who not only resembles the artist (they are roughly the same age too), but they also share similar experiences with identity and exile (as a form of self-preservation). To separate these two connections from an objective read of the show has been challenging for me. Plus, the density of the exhibition itself makes it difficult to represent the significant changes her artistic practice has undergone through the decades, and to peel back the conceptual layers to reveal the philosophical underpinnings of Piper’s work would require some understanding of Immanuel Kant, who influenced Piper’s scholarly and artistic practice.
All of this brings me back to the beginning of this post. “Concepts and Intuitions” opened an important door that I don’t dare close; the show challenged some of the assumptions and fears I’ve always had around conceptual and performance based art, and it allowed me to reframe those fears, enabling me to experience the work in a very personal way. In a transcript of a lecture Piper gave to the British Society of Aesthetics, the philosopher discussed the important psychological space one must create to experience contemporary art: “To be at home, in this place means to be comfortable with unsynthesized intuitions: with unfamiliar things and happenings and states and presences that confound and silence the mind and decompose the ego.” (2) This is a principle that continues to guide the way I look at and engage with art, and it’s what led me to create my blog so many years ago.
The work is ongoing-some questions will remain unanswered, but our willingness to do the emotional work of understanding and articulating what art means to us should always be paramount, even when we must confront discomfort.
Adrian Piper’s “Concepts and Intuitions” is on view at the Hammer Museum in L.A. through January 6, 2019.
(1) Butler, Cornelia, “Wake Up and Get Down, Adrian Piper’s Direct Address”. A Synthesis of Intuitions, Adrian Piper; Exhibition Catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018.
(2) Piper, Adrian, “The Real Thing Strange”, The Empson Lecture delivered to the British Society of Aesthetics Annual Conference, 2013. A Synthesis of Intuitions, Adrian Piper; Exhibition Catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018.