Adrian Piper, Ikon Gallery

Of course, Adrian Piper’s work is challenging and is, in part, highly confrontational. She frequently takes herself as her subject matter, and proceeds to tackle unequivocally wide and specific issues of race and racism.

One of the most interesting aspects of Piper’s work is the fact that (although there is no shortage of entry points for us, here in England) it essentially addresses American sensibilities and an American condition, using American mechanisms and aesthetics. So Piper utilises material such as the American music/chat show format, pages from The New York Times, Village Voice and photographs from America’s infamous history.

Perhaps the piece that most succinctly represents Piper’s position is the video installation Cornered. The piece features a monitor that plays and replays a tape of the artist in conversation with the viewer. Beneath the monitor there rests an upturned table. As if to emphasise the point that Piper’s contentions are real, and that she too is a ‘real’ person, copies of her birth certificate hang on either side of the monitor. In this piece, Piper has literally and metaphorically turned the tables on the viewer’s racism and complacency. Piper verbally challenges those who have taken up acquiescent positions at virtually all points on the political spectrum. Time and again Piper’s message is clear: racism, from whatever quarter, thrives on complacency. Much of her art exists to challenge this complacency…

…In her work, the victims of racism are scarcely attended to, although, as Piper consistently presents herself as being on the receiving end of racism, our exclusion from her work seems less problematic.

Curiously Piper also steers clear of acknowledging the historical reality and tangible notion of preferential treatment or accepting that degrees of racism do indeed have some sort of correlation with shades of skin colour. For example, in her 1984 video work, Funk Lessons, Piper comments on white musicians who have commandeered, reappropriated, and exploited Black music at the expense of Black musicians themselves. Footage of the Rolling Stones was simultaneously offered up as a good example of this process. But although Piper is perfectly correct in this, the point nevertheless appeared tired and limited. Surely, the more telling question would be this: how come Prince can make it, when those he has brazenly modelled himself on, such as George Clinton and Rick James, remain widely unknown? Or why has Bob Marley become a household name, at the expense of his equally proficient partners, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh?

The above extracts are from a review by Eddie Chambers of Adrian Piper's exhibition at Ikon Gallery. The review appeared in  Art Monthly, London, Number 152, December 1991/January 1992: 13-15 [RTTJ]