“It’s Just Art”: Adrian Piper and Rosemarie Trockel Question Art’s Ability to Affect Change

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“It’s Just Art”: Adrian Piper and Rosemarie Trockel Question Art’s Ability to Affect Change

A New York City native, Adrian Piper now lives in Berlin after her refusal to return to the States following her inclusion on a TSA “suspicious traveler” watch list in 2008; Rosemarie Trockel has lived in Germany her entire life. Cursory research suggests the artists’ affiliation goes little beyond a handful of group exhibitions they were featured in together. Despite the ostensive differences in their backgrounds and artistic practices, their current New York solo exhibitions, located a few blocks from one another on the Upper East Side, share a critical outlook. Enlisting vastly different pictorial languages and artistic strategies—personal introspection and detached minimalism—Piper and Trockel question the subversive capacity of art today: Is art enough? they seem to ask.

Art is Depression is among the most striking works in Trockel’s haunting Gladstone Gallery exhibition, Plus Quam Perfekt. The sculpture, a Plexiglas box encapsulating a pile of “wooden” ceramic logs, is positioned a few steps away from an actual fireplace—a romantic remnant from the gallery’s previous life as a townhouse. The sculpture plays on notions of convenience and futility. The inoperative fireplace both suffers from and yearns for the artwork containing kindling that will never burn. The impossibility of flames for the fireplace sets the exhibition’s tone: the wood is faux, the fire is inconceivable.

 

Rosemarie Trockel, 
Plus Quam Perfekt
, September 13–October 28, 2017, 
Installation view: Gladstone 64
. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel
. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photo: David Regen

 

Throughout the exhibition, the famously reticent artist maneuvers around mediums and themes in resistance to a conclusion, questioning the logic of even striving for such resolution. Nihilism is commonplace in Trockel’s titles: Prisoner of Yourself (2016) hangs like a mirror, yet its glazed ceramic façade hinders any reflection; Yes where others say no (2017) conveys the artist’s longstanding interest in utilizing archival material with vague connotations. Here, the outsized image of a beautiful blond figure blurs into hazy shades of blue.

In her New York Times review of Trockel’s 2012 New Museum survey, A Cosmos, Roberta Smith describes the artist’s “mind-expanding refusal of the standard big-game retrospective” and her disinterest in complying with sharply drawn theoretical and philosophical observations. Five years later, Trockel is equally invested in equivocation, if not more so, given her distance from speculative commentary and hesitance to discuss the creative process. In this exhibition, her avoidance of conforming to theoretical frameworks echoes her disbelief in the transformative capacity of art making. Whether the aggravated sociopolitical climate or existentialist reflections hasten this conclusion remains unclear.

 

Rosemarie Trockel, 
Plus Quam Perfekt
, September 13–October 28, 2017, 
Installation view: Gladstone 64
. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel
. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photo: David Regen

 

A growing number of artists today are overtly scrutinizing the conviction that art has the potential to help regeneration in society. Kara Walker’s ongoing exhibition at Sikkema & Jenkins Co. kicked off a well-publicized discussion in this vein with its lengthy title and press release penned by the artist. Walker asserted fatigue at the expectations of her, as a Black woman, to make art for social improvement, “It’s not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way,” she defined her exhibition in the press release. Along these lines, at Lévy Gorvy, a reinterpretation of Adrian Piper’s 1980 performance It’s Just Art, exhibited in the form of mixed-media documentation, constitutes a large portion of the artist’s solo presentation.

 

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975, Silver print, oil crayon. 8 x 10 inches. Private Collection. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

 

Disguised in an exaggerated characterization of a hyper-macho figure in an Afro wig, mustache, and aviator sunglasses, Piper roamed city streets to analyze social discomfort towards Black people in America. “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear,” reads one of Piper’s related forthright drawings. This absorbing multimedia work additionally includes collages created from photographic documentation, diary entries, and speech bubbles. Performing as another character in It’s Just Art, this time a female surrogate to the aforementioned masculine character, Piper stares at the camera with a deadpan expression. Her face is painted white and projected onto it are images from the Cambodian genocide, executed by the Khmer Rouge during the mid-1970s. The projection includes thought bubbles conveying thoughts that target and implicate viewers’ most subdued social phobias and their numbness towards other’s agony. “But They Establish a Certain Physical Intimacy Between Us Nevertheless (Hesitantly You Agree, Wondering What This Commits You To),” one thought reads, protesting the comfort claimed by the powerful. Throughout the performance, Piper addresses her Western audience about the war in the Far East, while speech bubbles deliver uncomfortable assumptions about her spectators. One particularly damning text, “Our Confirmation is Gentle and Respectful to The Distance Between Us (You Glance at The News Photos of Cambodian Refugees),” could hardly feel more timely. History repeats itself; apathy eclipses militancy.

 

Adrian Piper, It’s Just Art, 1980, Documentation of the performance Wednesday, April 23, 1980 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio: performance poster, black and white print on paper; performance diagram; video of the reconstruction of the performance, DVD, 00:24:42. Photo: Tom Powell. Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

 

The press release published on the occasion of Piper’s performance of the piece at Artists Space in 1981 emphasizes her “use of aesthetics as a distancing mechanism from the political realities of the world”—a strategy that persists today in more recent work like Here (2008–2015), a set of engraved wall texts in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, reading “I was here / We were here / We are here.” The incriminating speech bubbles in It’s Just Art chime in tune with Trockel’s skepticism about what art and activism can achieve. However, Piper’s path is loud, vocal—her work is personal and urgent by necessity. Try as she may to shrug off the pressure of making politically effective art, the stakes are too high for inconclusive, subtle visual narratives like Trockel’s.

 

Adrian Piper, Here, 2008–2015, Engraved wall text, Site-specific installation comprised of three components, Dimensions variable. Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © APRA Foundation Berlin. Photography by Tom Powel

 

The irony is that these artists’ apparent misgivings about art may actually be suspicion about us, its onlookers: they seem to dare their viewers to take action, but they aren’t getting their hopes up. Whether speaking in an outspoken or reticent voice, both artists remain in doubt about the audience’s ability and enthusiasm for transformation. Trockel’s non-reflective mirror, challenging the viewer with its lifeless surface, and Piper’s unabashed textual confrontation of her audience ultimately manifest our failure to heed the message of the art we observe.

Adrian Piper’s solo exhibition at Lévy Gorvy continues through October 21.

Rosemarie Trockel’s Plus Quam Perfekt runs through October 28 at Gladstone Gallery, 64th Street.

 

Osman Can Yerebakan

Osman Can Yerebakan is a writer and curator based in New York.

 

(Image at top: Adrian Piper, It’s Just Art, 1980, Documentation of the performance Wednesday, April 23, 1980 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio: performance poster, black and white print on paper; performance diagram; 15 black and white photographs, silver gelatin prints on baryte paper, marker; 3 paper-text collages, marker on paper; video of the reconstruction of the performance, DVD, 00:24:42. Photo credit for the black and white photographs: Ralph Neri. Photo credit for the installation view: Tom Powell. Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.)

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2017-10-10T03:06:47+00:00