In the late 1960s, Adrian Piper’s art was classically conceptualist. Appearing in the form of typewritten pages, instructions, and diagrams, her early work reflected an advanced grasp of linguistics and semiotic theory. Her concurrent investigations into the nature of consciousness were also carefully fostered through a disciplined practice of yoga and meditation, which the artist maintains to this day. In response to repeated experiences of racism and sexism in the male dominated New York art world of the 1960s, however, Piper’s practice shifted to accommodate a growing political engagement, and her work channeled conceptualist strategies toward new interrogations of race, gender, and sexuality.
In 1970, she enacted Catalysis, a series of public performances through which she explored her body’s visibility in society, moving through the public space wearing clothes splashed with wet paint or saturated with foul odors. Two years later, Piper created a male alter ego named the “Mythic Being”; she performed in drag throughout New York and created a series of collaged and overpainted photographs paired with texts—reflections, political slogans, and flirtations—which addressed the performance of gender and stereotypes concerning black sexuality.
Decades later, Piper supervised a volunteer-driven performance; participants received henna tattoos on their foreheads that read, “Everything will be taken away” backward, in handwritten text. They later reflected on their experiences wearing that phrase in public. Everything Will Be Taken Away 2, a related series of erased and altered photographs is included in the 2015 Biennale di Venezia; each photograph repeats the titular phrase, which obscures the figures, events, and locations depicted. Piper also exhibits four vintage blackboards, on which the same words are repeated in the style of classroom punishments. This series raises a variety of questions ranging from the political to the spiritual—including, for instance, the destructiveness of contemporary global conflict, censorship in the mainstream media, or the yogic ideal of nonattachment. The Biennale also presents Piper’s The Probable Trust Registry, an interactive performance that literalizes social or personal contracts. In a simulated corporate environment, visitors may sign declarations that promise moral accountability toward themselves and others. The documents are then photocopied and archived at the APRA (Adrian Piper Research Archive) Foundation, Berlin.