I Can’t Stop Thinking About Adrian Piper’s Art
By Caroline Rothstein
When I was a senior in college, I took a life-changing English course called “Writing Through Culture and Art.” My friends and I called it “the pretentious class” because everyone in the class was a handpicked artist, writer, art historian, art critic, or art aficionado. Our professor was poet Kenneth Goldsmith, with whom I credit much of my professional path as a writer and performer. In Kenny’s course, I drank the avant-garde Kool-Aid, believed every class discussion as gospel towards a life of intellectual inquiry and devoted artistry, and worshipped each artist we studied, most notably Adrian Piper and Marina Abramovic.
I incessantly think about Piper and Abramovic – when I write, when I perform, and when I walk down the sidewalks of New York City, desperately pondering my mission and intention as an artist. While Abramovic is undoubtedly a legend and game-changer for contemporary art, I am mind-boggled that when I mention Piper’s name – especially to fellow performers – people draw blank stares. Maybe Piper’s lack of notoriety lies in what she illustrates in much of her art: racism. Maybe it’s because she is black, and Abramovic is white. Maybe it’s because she emigrated from the United States in the mid-2000s to Berlin, Germany, where she now resides. Still, she is forefront in my mind: she beckons me deep into her work, as I relentlessly consider the impact she has on the art world, social identity, and New York City as a performance stage.
Piper is both a conceptual artist and an analytic philosopher. Her biography is extensive, her list of contributions to philosophy and art grand, and her reception of fellowships and awards profound. Yet, while her repertoire is vast, my dance with Piper revolves around four pieces: her Catalysis series, Funk Lessons, Cornered (Part 1 & Part 2), and Calling Card.
In all four series, Piper stages simultaneously subtle and overt confrontations about race, racism, and class, as much of her work addresses her experience as a black woman. I also address race, racism, and class in my artistic work, but there is something about the way Piper explores these issues that mesmerizes me. Maybe it’s because I am the intended, privileged observer confronted, moved, and altered by Piper’s work. Maybe it’s because I am by no means a subtle artist, and often quite aggressive in the ways my work explores social identity. Maybe it’s because Piper is black, and I am white, and I will never be able to articulate her experience or perspective. I can only continue obsessing over her brilliance and the way her work makes me – and so many more – think about race and art.
Whatever it is, I will most likely never see Piper’s performance art live; I missed the boat by virtue of time and location. I will most likely continue my journey as an artist and social justice advocate agonizing over how to best reflect issues and experiences around social identity in a way that is powerfully engaging. I will most likely continue thinking about Piper every time I have a new idea for a new piece addressing a new concept hoping, at the very least, our work can have a conversation, and somewhere in Berlin, she knows she continues to make an impact.
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate. Her YouTube series “Body Empowerment” airs the first and third Monday of each month. For more about Caroline, follow her on her Twitter, Facebook, and visit www.carolinerothstein.com.
Editor's Note: Wow. Wow. Wow. Another fascinating post in the series by this week's guest blogger Caroline Rothstein. Thanks so much to her for giving me Adrian Piper - because I didn't know! I think we should fund a trip for Caroline to Berlin to create a work with Ms. Piper! Check out all the Women You Should Know series this Women's History Month. You can find the ones from March 2012 in the blog archive. If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let me know!