Societal stereotypes and divisions are unfortunately ubiquitous in our culture. Which begs the question, how should we go about demolishing them? With the nearly 300 photographs, paintings, drawings, videos, and installations currently comprising her blockbuster Hammer Museum retrospective, Adrian Piper: Concepts and Intuitions, 1965-2016, this New York-born, Berlin-based conceptual artist and former philosophy professor obliterates these harmful ideas via self-expression and scholarly inquisition. This comprehensive, almost encyclopedic presentation not only documents fifty years of Piper’s experimental oeuvre but also investigates the genesis of prejudice and embraces a much looser, more liberated sense of self.
The last time Los Angeles witnessed a Piper exhibition on this scale was the uber-successful Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) spectacle, MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper’s Videos, Installations, Performances, and Soundworks 1968–1992. The year was 2000, making the City of Angels long overdue for a riotous follow-up. Now, through this Museum of Modern Art-organized affair, the artist makes her triumphant return to the West Coast, and visitors are treated to a myriad of noteworthy and rarely seen works.
Appropriately, we begin at the beginning of her career. In 1967, when Piper was only 18 years old, she crafted a searing series of 35 Barbie Doll Drawings on notebook paper. As a child on the verge of adulthood, she re-examines the toys of her youth, now realizing their role in creating self-esteem issues. As Barbie dolls often present an idealized version of the female form, they teach young girls to feel ashamed of their bodies. Through these drawings, Piper opens the public’s eyes to this subconscious messaging. The budding artist disassembles this iconic doll and puts her back together many different ways, each time recalling the surrealist tradition, itself a notorious boys’ club.
Nearly twenty years later, Piper dissects the antiquated concept of racial identity in another poignant pencil drawing dubbed, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features. Echoing the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s direct, sublime, and somber gaze in his beloved Self-Portrait at 28 (1500), this head-on depiction of Piper confronts the viewer with strength, acerbic wit, and racial stereotypes. As both of the artist’s parents are biracial, the drawing’s title begs the audience to consider what those features might be. In doing so, she points to the absurdity and racism of the exercise.
Further exposing issues of learned racial stereotypes, Piper’s 1983 projected video film project, Funk Lessons features the artist instructing a group of mostly white young people how to dance to soul music in a dry, academic manner. The piece investigates clichéd notions of who exactly can and cannot dance and whether this skill can be taught. While some of the students are indeed awkward, others appear graceful and fluid. The project also dismisses the idea that funk music is somehow shallow and instead argues that this genre was instrumental in the American civil rights movement of the 1970s. Funk Lessons also underscores the value of dance as a way to unite people. The participants did not know that they were part of an art project. They simply believed they were there for dance lessons. While the artist started off using didactic instruction, she slowly included more and more anecdotes relating to African-American history. She then moderated the heated racial discussions that followed. Through this highly evocative piece, Piper decimates the obsolete educational theory that lectures, instruction, and memorization are somehow more effective than conversation.
Adrian Moves to Berlin
Concepts and Intuitions also features 2007’s Adrian Moves to Berlin, a playful, effervescent street performance video involving race and dance. Piper decamped to the historic yet thoroughly modern German capital two years earlier. In this projection, we witness the artist dancing all by herself in the middle of the famed Alexanderplatz city square. As Berlin’s eastern city center, this plaza serves as a reminder of Berlin’s political history and division. Still, even decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pervasive sense of segregation still lingers. Here, Piper tries to reunite the German people through the art of dance. Again ruminating on themes of learning and instruction, she plays German house music as she improvises a string of funk-based dance moves that she clearly knows by heart.
Expanding on this notion of expressing African-American culture in an overwhelmingly white arena, this exhibition also includes one of Piper’s most popular installations 1991’s What It’s Like, What It Is #3. As a collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this built environment will be on display at the ICA LA’s downtown location until January 6, 2019. Drawing inspiration from Robert Morris’ untitled slab (1968), here Piper installs a white, rectangular column in the middle of a spartan room. On each side of this pillar, four video screens project an African-American man turning counter-clockwise as he rejects a laundry list of vile stereotypes about his people and cultural background.
How do we deconstruct social identity? First, we must define it. Through this moving and momentous collection, Adrian Piper enlightens us. Just like in one of her philosophy classes, she guides the viewer through a series of difficult questions. Is this identity innate or forged through experience? Is it attained through nature or nurture? It is only when we shine a light on these notions through questioning do we realize their illusory nature.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.