Adrian Piper, "Everything"
A pioneering Conceptualist tackles everything and more.
Thu Mar 27 2008
Photograph: Courtesy Elizabeth Dee Gallery
“Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free.” This quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the inspiration for Adrian Piper’s “Everything” series. Piper—a pioneering conceptual artist who has been known since the 1960s for her fusion of Minimalism with a searing analysis of race and gender issues—takes this message and expands it to encompass blacks and women as well as the author’s universal “man.” She then boils it down to a simple sentence: “Everything will be taken away”—an ominous prediction open to multiple interpretations.
New Yorkers first encountered Piper’s “Everything” message in 2003 when curator Jacob Fabricius donned a sandwich board with these five words and wandered around Brooklyn as a Public Art Fund project. In the spring of 2007, Creative Time sponsored another “Everything” project. Volunteers had the sentence written backward on their foreheads in henna ink, so it could only be read in mirrors, then recorded public reaction to their visages. Interpretations ranged from the optimistic (“What do you have to lose?”) to the banal (“What’s that schmutz on your face?”), according to a Time Out New York article at the time.
Now, “Everything” has been brought from the streets into a gallery, where it loses its exhibitionist edge. But in this context, it also becomes a pointed criticism of art exhibitions, or at least those that mistake apathy and isolationism for a new kind of avant-garde. Here, the words EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY are emblazoned on every surface of the show: imprinted on a mirror, repeated on wallpaper, affixed to images of assassinated political leaders, across pictures of Hurricane Katrina devastation. For Piper, all things—from racially motivated violence to her own personal choice to leave the U.S. in 2005 and relocate to Berlin—are perceived as a loss. In one way, this show is a meditation on what Americans have lost under the Bush administration. In another, more hopeful way, it allows for the possibility of new agendas once all the old baggage is thrown away.
For a show that could be read as didactically black-and-white, the gallery is refreshingly subdued, even meditative. Everything is printed in subtle whites and grays, requiring viewers to stare at the images carefully to draw a message. This is particularly true of the video Everything #19.2, in which CNN coverage of the Megan Williams case is reconfigured as a low-contrast, snowy-white silent film. (For those unfamiliar with it, the incident involved the 2007 kidnapping, rape and torture of a young African-American woman in West Virginia by six perpetrators.) Details of the crime are printed at the far end of the gallery, while adjoining wallpaper imagery combines pale renderings of the Bill of Rights with portraits of JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and RFK. Her favorite phrase is printed in various permutations on each.
Piper is at her most haunting, however, when she allows for a very different interpretation of the work. A mirror at the entrance of the gallery is printed with the words across its surface. Could this mean that narcissism will disappear, or merely youth? In another spot, the artist literally cuts through the gallery’s wall, revealing crumbling gray bricks. The opening is framed like a church window, again with the omnipresent phrase printed on the glass. Does this mean that the gallery, as we know it, is destined to disappear? That’s certainly a fear on some dealers’ minds with recession looming.
In the back room, two animations on opposite walls feature simple circles behaving like Ping-Pong balls: bouncing, exploding, reproducing and disappearing, sometimes changing from white to black and back again. The most simplistic works in the exhibition, they’re too easily read as metaphors for race relations.
Some may in fact dismiss the entire show for this very reason, assuming that this artist can only deliver a superficial one-liner using aesthetic devices that seem so 1993. Yet, many current shows, including the Whitney Biennial, merely dance around today’s culture of pessimism, while Piper bravely walks straight into the heart of the matter. Can a new President, especially if he’s black, rescue us from this sense of despair? Or will the solution be nonpolitical? These are the kinds of issues that Piper wants us to think about with this multifaceted installation. At the minimum, she wants us to think.