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  • Writer's pictureLaliana

Adrian Piper

Updated: Mar 23, 2018

One of Piper's most important work, which particularly interests me, is called the Mythic Being series (1972-75).  In this work Piper disguised herself as an androgynous, racially indeterminate young man, dressed in black T-shirt and flared jeans, big sunglasses, an Afro wig and a Zapataish mustache, often smoking a cigarette.

This is a performance-art version of a stereotype of the black male as a threatening mugger.She was turning fear into farce, punching a hole into such stereotypes while acknowledging their power.

She documented a series of public and private performances before drawing on many of the photographs and frequently adding speech or thought balloons. In 1973, Adrian Piper created an alter-ego, the Mythic Being, who became the basis of a pioneering series of performances and photo-based works.

The first public appearance of the Mythic Being came in a series of monthly advertisements in the art pages of The Village Voice.

Piper added balloons containing words from her own journals written between 1961 and 1972. From the outset, the age, race and sexuality of the Being was unstable its fiction confused by the autobiographical journal entries.

In ‘I/You/Us’ (1975) , a series of six photographs of a small part of the big project called Mythic Being , the status of race as performance is underscored pale and undisguised.  Piper beneath large balloons in which she demands someone’s attention in a comical, cerebrally nasty manner: ‘Be sure to attend very carefully to what I have to say to you. For if you do not, I will make a sincere effort to kill you.

To reveal herself as the Mythic Being, or to drop the distinction between her fictional alter ego and herself, in ‘I/You/Us’, was to argue, both angrily and wittily, for the fictional nature of race as a fixed category of identity. 

The reputation of Piper’s early work rests on the fact that she was one of a number of artists who used performance to introduce social critique into a broadly Conceptual framework.

Piper’s use of elements of performance and autobiography undercut the veracity of the Conceptual-looking photographs. For Piper’s photographs were not simply records after the fact; the existence of the ‘Being’ depended upon them. Piper’s description of this complex relationship between performance and photography stands as an early demonstration that identity itself is bound up in performance and its representation.

In her art as well as in her life, Adrian Piper has confronted the pervasive racism of our society. Piper, who is of mixed–race ancestry, is particularly concerned with the ways in which racism shapes our very sense of identity and self.

Cornered (1988) consists of a single video monitor which is wedged into a corner of the gallery behind an overturned table. The monitor is flanked by two birth certificates one identifying Piper's father as white and the other as black (octoroon).

Piper herself appears on the monitor, addressing viewers casually and quietly. Her own ambiguous racial identity, which confounds stereotypes due to Piper's light skin and self–described "bourgie, junior-miss" style of dress, serves as a basis for Piper's rigorously argued, deconstructive analysis that calls into question not only her own apparent racial identity, but the viewer's as well.

To Piper, racial identity in biological terms is less important than what we "do about it" in social and cultural terms. Thus, after informing "white" viewers of the likelihood that, according to genetic statistics and entrenched conventions of racial classification, they are actually black, Piper presents a number of behavioral options. Example are:

  1. "Are you going to research your family ancestry, to find out whether you are among the white 'elite'? Or whether perhaps a mistake has been made, and you and your family are, after all, among the black majority?"

  2. "And what are you going to do if a mistake has been made? Are you going to tell your friends, your colleagues, your employer that you are in fact black, not white, as everyone had supposed? Or will you try to discredit the researchers who made this estimate in the first place."

In conclusion Piper says, "If I choose to identify myself as black whereas you do not; that's not just a special, personal fact about me. It's a fact about us. It's our problem to solve."

While provoking the viewer's awareness of his or her own role in perpetuating ideologies of racial difference, Piper reminds us that the power of such ideologies to determine a person's identity cuts both ways. The white population's impulse to define—and therefore separate—blackness, for instance, can be seen as an attempt to define whiteness itself by exclusion. Clearly, such a strategy is limiting and oppressive to all concerned, black and white alike.

With My Calling (Card) #1 (1986), Piper provides a means for viewers to take the confrontation of racism into their own hands, extending Piper's art into other "real life" situations. This piece consists of a stack of small, wallet-size cards on which Piper has printed the following statement:

"Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure that 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 no 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 the discomfort your racism is causing me."

The course of Piper's art since the late 1960s can be understood as consisting of an ongoing interplay between conceptual and feminist practices. As a conceptual artist, Piper has stressed the power of rational argument and the clarity of logical proofs.

Feminism enters into Piper's work not so much because it concerns women specifically, but because  it consistently challenges the philosophical underpinnings of our phallocentric language and society. Piper's analyses of subjectivity are invariably self-questioning, informed by an essential understanding of the mutability of her own identity. As in Cornered, Piper's art leaves us less certain of who we are, but more engaged in determining who we might be.

"I consider myself to be a feminist, according to this definition, because I work to achieve a feminist state of affairs in my personal and professional relationships with other women. I do not consider myself to be a feminist artist because I do not do my artwork in order to achieve this state of affairs, nor is this state of affairs the primary subject matter of most of my artwork". criticism:

"We took the first step toward feminism in the 1920s and the second in the 1960s. But we still are not even close to anything that deserves the name of feminism. We are still competing with one another for approval and rewards doled out by men. We are still subordinating our familial, social and professional relationships with one another to our familial, social and professional relationships with men. And we are still advancing our narrow self-interests with men at the expense of our deeper wellbeing and interests in one another."


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