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A Cheat Sheet on Adrian Piper
A quick peek at her art will reveal that she’s a hilarious genius who knows how to boogie.
Art Girls Jungle 12 Mar 2019

2018 was a big year for Adrian Piper’s artistic career. March 31 – July 22, MoMA held a major career retrospective for her, the largest ever show for a living artist, and marked the first time it devoted its whole top floor to the work of a single living artist.
But the artist was not present. Nor was she present at the show’s opening when it traveled to the Hammer Museum in L.A. in the fall. In 2005, she packed her bags and shipped off to Berlin, and since 2006, she’s vowed not to set foot in America. Apparently, not even the holy grail of art world honors could change that. (She probably would have been present at the opening of the final leg of the show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, but it was suddenly cancelled, to much scandal and speculation.)
The Mythic Being: Say It Like You Mean It (1975).
Clearly, Piper is nothing if not stubborn, but don’t even think about writing her off as a stuffy conceptual artist/academic: even a quick peek at her art and writing will reveal that she’s a hilarious genius who knows how to boogie.
If there’s one thing a great deal of Piper’s work has in common, it’s that it upsets the viewers’ internal balance, forcing them to recalibrate and reexamine their convictions in the process. But to sum up five decades of diverse output in a neat paragraph, I’m going to have to resort to metaphor.
Think of your mind as a living room, and your most deeply held beliefs as an old couch. You’ve had this couch ever since you can remember; maybe it was passed down to you from your parents, or even your grandparents. It’s dusty, the style is outdated and it’s falling apart, but damn is it comfortable. You know deep down it’s past time to throw it out and get a new one, but if anyone else even dares to bring it up, they’re getting an icy glare at best and shunned forever at worst.
Adrian Piper wants you to throw out that couch and replace it with a new one, one that’s contemporary and sensibly designed for human comfort—yours and all your guests’. Probably one from a democratically priced, environmentally conscious Scandinavian design firm.
political self portrait 1 sex
Political Self-Portrait #1 [Sex] (1979).
I’ll be honest—setting out to write about Adrian Piper was mildly terrifying. Think scarier than taking an important final exam, but less scary than public speaking. Why? In 2015, Piper declared that she was fed up with the press and would no longer speak to them about her work. But speak for her at your own risk: she’s been known to tear apart careless writers and editors who misquote or misrepresent her with scathing open letters. Let’s just say I proofread this one.
But I couldn’t resist writing about her anyway, if mostly to satisfy my own curiosity. Throughout my research, I couldn’t shake a lurking sense of disbelief: that this person who wrote, did and made so many incredible things actually exists. Though her image proliferates in her artwork and her voice comes through clearly in her writing, it was somehow hard to imagine the flesh and blood human behind them. Maybe it’s because the ideas are so abstract; maybe it’s because I’m not a Harvard philosopher; or maybe—fine, I’ll admit it, maybe it’s just that I have a bit of a person crush on her, but Adrian Piper feels more like a concept than a person. She appears to me as a mythic being.
Everything will be taken away #21, 2010-2013.
But Piper would be the first to tell me that my thoughts and senses can’t be trusted, and all the evidence appears to confirm that she is, in fact, a real human being. Which is definitely a good thing; otherwise, this article would have a serious problem.
So who is this woman who escaped to Berlin but gave up sex, retired from being black and taught awkward white kids how to funk? Read on and find out!
Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin 24.02. – 03.09.2017 © Foto: David von Becker
The probable trust registry: The rules of the game #1-3 (2013-2017). Exhibited for the first time at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York in 2013, this was the work for which Piper won the Golden Lion at the 2015 Venice Biennial. Visitors were asked to sign three contracts, one at each desk: “I will always be too expensive to buy.” “I will always mean what I say.” “I will always do what I say I am going to do.”

1) She holds a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard

In case you need further proof that life just isn’t fair, here we have some hard evidence that some people get to be incredibly brilliant and creatively gifted at the same time (while most of us get to be neither). Yes, Adrian Piper has a PhD in the classic, literal sense: she is a doctor of philosophy.
And if that weren’t impressive enough, she graduated at the top of her class, a beautiful “go fuck yourself” gesture to classmates who insinuated that she had been accepted into the program because of her race. And that, my friends, is how you shut the haters up *blows on wet manicure*.
But her love for philosophy goes back way further than her séjour in the ivory tower. In the summer of 1971, Adrian Piper met her lifelong companion, Immanuel Kant. As new lovers do, they holed up in her apartment that summer; Piper hermited the months away while reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), writing, doing yoga (more on that later) and fasting.
A series of mirror self-portraits titled “Food for the Spirit” came out of the experience. These shots might technically be proto-mirror selfies, but I doubt you’ll find anything this deep in your own Selfies album: Piper took these pictures as a “reality check” “every time the fear of losing [herself] took over” when Kant’s thought got a little too self-transcendent.
piper food for spirit 1
Food for the Spirit #1 (1971).

2) She’s a dedicated yogi

The Mythic Being Doing Yoga (1975).
Ok, time for a little honesty. How much of what you do every day revolves around getting laid? For lots of us sex-obsessed Westerners, the answer is probably a lot, especially if:
a) It’s Friday or Saturday night;
b) I’m single;
c) I’m ovulating;
d) It’s been a while.
So why would anyone willingly give up the thing that most of us spend more time thinking about and chasing than we’d probably like to admit? Because that’s what Piper did. At an age when the 40-year-old virgin was just about to finally get deflowered, Adrian Piper had already given up meat, sex and alcohol. Why?
The answer is, of course, personal and complex, but it might have something to do with her lifelong dedication to yoga, her “third hat,” in addition to yoga and philosophy. In a speech she gave at Brandeis University in 1996, published as “On Wearing Three Hats,” Piper explained: “To engage in all three activities [art, philosophy and yoga] deeply, rigorously, inclusively, self-reflectively, rationally and open-mindedly is the greatest personal fulfillment there is. It’s better than sex.”
Although Piper has always taken care to wear only one hat at a time, the influence of her yoga practice can be felt in both her philosophy and her artwork. Her website includes a section on yoga with in-depth information about its history and philosophy, which Piper herself has contributed to. If you can decipher the Seven Insights/Stages of Cognitive Discernment, please dm me immediately because there’s a high chance you’re enlightened.
everything piper
Everything #2.8 (2003).
Several of Piper’s artworks can also be interpreted through a yogic lens, from the “Everything” series (many works contain the text “Everything will be taken away,” which could be read as a reference to the yogic precept of the impermanence of the material world); Mokshamudra Progression (in yoga, a mudra is a hand position that locks and guides energy flow in a certain way through the body, and moksha is the yogic concept of ultimate freedom and liberation); and Shiva Dances, a reprise of her Funk Lessons, performed at the Art Institute of Chicago in October 2004.

3) She was the first African-American woman to become a tenured philosophy professor in the US.

In 1987, Piper received tenure in the philosophy department of Georgetown University. She also taught philosophy at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, University of California, San Diego, and Wellesley College, where she was tenured until 2008.
Like in pretty much all close, long-term relationships, no matter what either person later says, her breakup with Wellesley wasn’t exactly mutual or amicable. Piper believed—and still does, as of a September 2018 interview with Frieze—that the college wants her dead.
A bit dramatic or just facing the facts? Only she can know for sure, so we’ll have to take the artist’s word for it. According to Piper, her African-American ancestry, identification and activism threatened the college’s racist policies and drove the administration to bully her and force her out of her position and even the country. For more of the details on the scandal, check out her new autobiography, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, which hit the shelves in 2018 (she also explains why her birth was a “cosmic mistake”).

4) She’s got the funk.

Postcard advertising Funk Lessons in 1984.
Between 1980 and 1982, Piper hosted a series of events that seemed to be lessons on how to dance funk. Little did the participants know that they were actually walking into a participative art piece, somewhere between relational art and an early example of social practice.
The idea was born from Piper’s experience playing funk music while hosting people for dinner or a drink; “as is standard middle-class behavior, [I would] initially select my background music from the Usual Gang of Idiots (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.),” she wrote in “Notes on Funk 1 (1985). “I would then interpose some funk and watch people become puzzled, agitated or annoyed, then I would attempt to initiate systematic discussion of the source of their dismay.”
Funk Lessons group performance at University of California, Berkeley, November 6, 1983.

When she realized that the tribal African origins and African-American “low culture” associations of funk music made her white, middle-class friends anxious or upset, she decided to take matters into her own hands. By teaching her (mainly white) participants how to dance to funk music, as well as a bit about its history and cultural significance, she tried to get them to move past their fear of the unknown and, most importantly, “GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.” Moving, dancing, expressing themselves and even “self-transcending” together to the beat of some funky jams, her participants were truly partying for a purpose, whether they knew it or not.

5) She did drag way before RuPaul.

If you happened to strut the streets of New York from 1972 to 1975, you might have run into the “Mythic Being,” a “third-world, working class, overtly hostile male” alter ego that Piper created for an early performance art series by the same name.
Before the Mythic Being took to the streets, you might have spotted him in the pages of the Village Voice. Each month, Piper took out an ad that featured the Mythic Being with a speech or thought bubble with a quote from her own childhood diary. The quotes also became her personal mantra for the month, which she would repeat over and over to herself, mulling over their meaning.
mythic being
The Mythic Being: Street Crossing (1974).
Then, she took the mantra public, repeating out loud to very confused passersby seemingly random phrases like “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies and things she does anyways and says it’s for her, even if I always eat it. So I’ve decided to fast.” MoMA even described the work as an “exorcism”: Piper has explained that the experience of performing her inner thoughts helped them become a party of the public history and no longer her own.
Her original idea was to create a being that had the exact same history as Piper—hence, the journal quotes—but looked completely different. It’s a brilliant experiment, if you think about; who hasn’t secretly wondered how other people, your friends and family, even, would treat you if you were uglier, or bigger, or had a different skin color? And would you even be the same person inside if your outsides changed? Piper’s experience suggests that you might not.
But why take her word for it? Get out there and create your own mythic beings, people, and see if the world can handle it!
The Mythic Being: Cycle I: 6/6/70 (1974), censored from the Village Voice series.

Text by Katya Lopatko. 
Images via @kris10mor10sen, Contemporary Art Daily, Tumblr, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, MoMA, Adrian Piper, Artsy, SFMOMA’s Open Space, Mousse Magazine

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