“It is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, that gets the worst grade for gender and race discrimination.”
– Maura Reilly, 2018
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 is a mindblowing exhibition for many reasons. As I’ve mentioned before, in the period from 2014-2016, the ratio female artist solo exhibitions in comparison to male artists in the MoMA has been 13,89%. The MoMA has frequently been condemned for the exclusion of non-white male artists. Adrian Piper’s solo makes the institution feel less rigid and more engaging with contemporary issues. While the MoMA by no means gets cleared from this stigma, it is significant that the current exhibition on view is a dedicated to a non-white non-male artist.
But that’s far from the only astonishing thing about it. The form is refreshing, to begin with. The retrospective starts as early in her life as possible: her work from before she went to the art academy. Around this time she used LSD to “go beyond the surfaces of things.” The pieces from this age are based on drug trips with their vivid colours and expressive brushwork are significantly different from the course she takes afterwards. Around the same time, she switched from an art academy to the City College of New York where she chose philosophy as a major, her style transformed to Minimalism and later more Conceptual. She uses arrangements of words, doing performances, creating alter egos.
Walking from one room to another, one can see her work slowly but steadily increase political content in her works. That the artist is also a philosopher is evident throughout the exhibition. One can trace that she deals with issues that are still fiercely prevailing at the present: racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. These matters are present in most of her work but it ranges how straightforward and serious it is.
In an early stage of political explorations, she created the “Mythic Being,” in the early 70s. A personage one could say, dressed in an Afro wig, a fake moustache and mirrored sunglasses, she performed the stereotype of a hostile young African-American man. Sometimes, on the streets of New York, he verbally confronted the people on the street. She depicted this personage on photos and for one paid-for insertion in a local paper, she wrote down “I embody everything you most hate and fear.” Similarly, she created some 10 years later a pencil drawing called Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features and 10 years after that Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady. With these hyperbolic statements, she shows how unstable the very concept racial identity is. In a more obscure way, she shows how racial identity is not something one can learn by instruction in her 1983 film “Funk Lessons.” In this movie, one can see her teaching a mostly white and stiff bunch of students to dance on disco and soul music.
In Pretend #2, the artist puts together the images of women with young children. The first one looks like a hungry and poor mother with her child, the second looks like a happy mom who got a photographer to capture herself with her child and the third one is a looks like a war journalist has captured a scared mother with her child. She frames these images together with the words “pretend to not know what you know” and makes its visitors think about if and how that the “traditional American family” is part of maintaining the unjust status quo.
In the above-mentioned examples, she does not only subvert racial identity but also gender identity and misogyny. In the late 80’s, she created “calling cards,” statements on business cards, one could present at any given time. She wrote on it “Dear Friend, I’m not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE.” She also made these cards to tell people to back off touching her “DO NOT TOUCH, TAP, PAT, STROKE, PROD, PINCH, POKE, GROPE OR GRAB ME.” Another card reads: “Dear Friend. I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark in the past. I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are not black people present, and to distribute this card when they do. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret this discomfort your racism is causing me.” Again, she makes the audience think about discrimination and sexism. Almost no one can be neutral with these issues, you enforce it, are affected by it or you unintentionally maintain these systems.
And then there are some works that remind me of Tino Sehgal and Martin Creed’s work. In a room, a museum guard stands in the door opening and next to it there are signs stating: “IN ORDER TO ENTER THE ROOM, YOU MUST HUM A TUNE. ANY TUNE WILL DO.” and “BEGIN HUMMING AS YOU APPROACH THE GUARD.” And believe me, it is very much entertaining to see people struggle and hesitating. Should I go in? Is this the only way to see the rest of the show? (it is) What should I hum? Her intention with this piece is to show that everyone is creative and has the potential to become an artist. She is one of the very first artists who was able to recruit the public to be its performers.
Another exceptional characteristic of the exhibition is that it shows the plethora of media she utilizes. Painting, drawing, photography, video, performance, participation based art, an installation incorporating sound and images, you name it!
I can only conclude that it is an amazing show, and in a span of 50 years, she kept evolving and trying new ways to get her ideas across. What is both striking and frightening, is that the core ideas in which she deals with race, identity, and gender are still at very much prevailing problems today. As she already said in 1989 “I want my work to contribute to the creation of a society in which racism and racial stereotyping no longer exist. In such a society, the prevailing attitude to cultural and ethnic others would be one not of tolerance but of acceptance.” I hope the MoMA has started over with a clean slate and will not shy away from putting up these controversial and powerful exhibitions again.
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 is on view until July 22nd, 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.