Adrian Piper 2 : Dance with Me

Adrian Piper:  A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 at MOMA, NY spring/summer 2018


2000 – Present


To paraphrase Ram Dass, you don’t want to be American or South African or gay or straight or black or white; or whatever.

What you want is to be free.


Adrian Piper has been a conceptual artist and a philosopher all of her working life.

She began with figurative art, moved to Conceptual Art in its first hour; and then to a highly politicized minimalism and minimal sculpture. 

With PhD in hand in philosophy from Harvard, she taught at college level for 30 years.  She still teaches philosophy and she still creates art.

Some of the artist’s messages are describing the state of our social relations and individual psychological positions.

Others are about transcending our differences.  The artist proposes that we can do this if we understand that we all have each other in us.  We are, all of us, amalgams one of the other.


The ideas enlivening Adrian Piper’s artistic work are: how do we perceive the world?  Ourselves?  How should we live?  How can we become free?

The most important questions of any life. 

This post addresses some of her artistic work after 2000; and her dancing. 




Brief Chronology of the artist’s life


1948:  Birth


Ashes to Ashes, 1995.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

The photos above are of the artist’s parents and her natal family. They were accompanied by text:  her parents had a marriage of passion, the artist says, which survived until the consequence of smoking – hers and his – took their lives.




1964:   The artist started a practice of yoga.  A major life-long support for her life with an expanded study of Vedic philosophy.

1971:  The artist shut herself away to study Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason (1781-87). A major support for her life.

1981: the artist received her PhD from Harvard University

The artist has taught philosophy for 30 years at university level.  Her specializations have been Kant and meta-ethics.

1985: In a year of great difficulty with her marriage and in the pursuit of her academic work in philosophy, the artist adopted Yogic celibacy and gave up on meat and alcohol also. 

2005: after many years of teaching philosophy at college level, the artist left for Berlin, having sold up in the US in the midst of a dispute with her academic employer.

2006: Finding that she was on a US Government watch list the artist decided not to return to the US and never has.

2008:  Cambridge University accepted to publish Rationality and the Structure of the Self which the artist later published herself online.

Early 2000s The artist refused to have her work included further in exclusively African-American artist shows.  She finds this ghettoizing. 

2012: The artist “retired from being black”.  She loaded a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, her skin significantly darkened. The accompanying note said that her ‘new racial designation would be “6.25 grey” honoring her 1/16th African heritage’.

2015: she declined all further press interviews about her work.

2015The artist received the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition went for her installation of hospitality desks – The Probable Trust Registry – recreated for this exhibition. 

Participants were invited to commit to one or more of three rules:  I will always be too expensive to buy;  I will mean everything I say; I will do everything I say I will do.

2018:  Publication of Escape to Berlin.




A copy of The Probable Trust Registry, and detail, at MOMA in the spring and summer of 2018 of Adrian Piper’s winning installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale


After 2000, the artist continued to produce a series of images centered on one message.   Some of her messages are descriptive of our present societal status.

Some of her messages are about transcending our differences.  The artist proposes that we can do this if we understand that we all have each other in ourselves.  We are all amalgams.




2000 – Present

Shortly after 2000, the artist addressed that everything will be taken away. 

This can be read, of course in several ways: as a politico-economic statement at the consequences for many millions of people living in the wake of one of our many cyclical economic recessions.



 Everything #2.8,” 2003. Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY



Everything #2.3, 2003; photograph photocopied on graph paper and sanded with sand paper. Private Collection on loan to MOMA, NY




Everything #5.1, 2004; engraved plexiglass and goldleaf inserted into wall.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin (with light interference)



It can, in the United States, refer to the legal and penal system heavily weighted in favour of removing the liberty, and taking the life, of members of some populations out of all proportion to their size in the total population. 



A photo in a booth at the exit of the exhibition in which visitors were asked:  List the fears of what we might do with your accumulations





It may refer, in the United States, to the extra-judicial killings of primarily young people, primarily African-American, by the police. 





Pretend #3, 1990, screenprinted text on 4 photographs, mounted on foam core, one photograph of pencil drawing on graph paper.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY





It may refer, in the United States, to the killing, primarily of young African-American men by people who are not police.  Sometimes they are using laws which exonerate their actions.




Imagine (Trayvon Martin), 2013, photolithograph

On February 26, George Zimmerman, a Hispanic man of mixed race, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African-American high school student who was not armed.  There had been an altercation between them. This took place in a gated community in which both were staying at the time.

George Zimmerman was acquitted.  The anger, shock, grief and fear have never subsided.




It may refer to the disabling of leaders of minority communities.



Everything #6, 2006; 6 digital prints on wallpaper.   Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.



It cannot but refer to the inevitability of death




Everything #2010-2013, chalk on four vintage blackboards in lacquered wood frames, each covered with the hand-written sentence “Everything will be taken away’ and mounted on the wall at eye-level.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY





A portion of Everything #17.2; extensive-form decision tree, 2007, vinyl wall print. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin



The inspiration of the Everything series is from  Solzhenitsin: a sentence which the artist incorporated into at least one of her audio-visual booths (not shown here).



a  path to freedom, even when the path is unexpected and difficult.






The artist has danced throughout her life.  Through her life.

She has used the dancing both for her own pleasure, and for political intervention and for spiritual evolution.



In her early 20s, the artist adopted the androgynous figure of the Mythic Being who performed several political acts and whom the artist used in photographed and drawn tableaux which she created.  

The Mythic Being danced.  And smoked.




The Mythic Being, Smoke, 1971, vintage black and white photograph. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin


2 of 14 silver gelatin prints in the exhibition, 1974, of the Mythic Being : Dancing. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin





In her early 30s, the artist used the dance – Funk – to continue the line of her proposals that we can overcome our imagined differences by understanding that we all have each other in ourselves.  We are all amalgams.

By poster and by invitations sent here and there, Adrian Piper invited people to attend dance lessons in which she would teach how to dance to funk music. 




Funk Lessons Bootsy poster, 1983.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin (with light interference).



The dancing was preceded by a sophisticated, spoken analysis of the stereotypes pertaining to different populations – supposedly –  in aptitude for dancing and rhythm and the sexual connotations of both.


Stills from Funk Lessons, 1983-84, Documentation of the group performance at University of California, Berkeley, November 6, 1983, video (colour and sound). Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin





The artist, an adept of Vedic philosophy as well as of the Western philosophical tradition, especially Kant and Hegel, and a practitioner of yoga in its widest sense since the mid-1960s, often uses the image of Lord Shiva.




Representations of No-hear, no-see, no-speak


One of several in The Colour Wheel Series, First Adhyasa, 2000,  shown at the exhibition. 

Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin


Shiva is lord of the dance. He dances within a Fire Wheel.  The god’s dance represents the moving of the world-spirit.  At his dance, evil forces disappear.

He is the Destroyer of Illusions.





In a video whose date I did not get but which has to be recent, the artist repeats I can take it, I can take it under a scroll of race and gender-inflected stereotypical statements and above a scroll of Psalm 23 in which ‘the Lord’ is Lord Shiva.





And finally, in her 69th year, the artist was recorded dancing to German house music of the 1980s in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz.






Asked by the NY Times (interview by Lauren O’Neill-Butler, July 5, 2018) what she considers to be the most important achievements of her life, the artist’s responded thus off the top of her head.


  1.  To have taken care of my mother during the last two years before her death from emphysema.

  2. To have escaped from the United States with my life.

  3. To have successfully treated most of my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms myself, by writing “Escape to Berlin.” (2018)

  4. To have finished “Rationality and the Structure of the Self” (accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press in 2008 and finally published online by the artist) at the same standard of quality I apply when I criticize other philosophers work – thereby demonstrating to my own satisfaction that it is not an unrealistic or impossible standard to meet………


In the same article, the artist explains why she focuses in her philosophical work on rationality and anomaly. 

She confirms that rationality is the ground of our (Western) philosophical being.


This is what Adrian Piper says about anomalies:

Human anomalies receive little or no attention in philosophy, because they destabilize those deeply embedded conventions of thought in the field that undergird most of the research that goes on in it.

Now, if you happen to be one of those anomalies, this stubborn, phlegmatic resistance to your very existence becomes very interesting indeed.

You can’t help thinking, what is making these smart people suddenly so stupid?

And even worse, what is making these nice people suddenly so evil?

What are the cognitive mechanisms by which their abilities to think clearly, make fine-grained distinctions, apply moral principles consistently, etc., are suddenly deteriorating noticeably in your presence?



It is not surprising, then, that the artist’s trajectory has been rocky and and has left misunderstanding and anger. 



From 1985 onwards – this being a year of great intellectual and emotional difficulty – Adrian Piper began to accumulate her cut hair, skin and nails in honey jars. 

With her ashes when she dies, she intends to bequeath these jars to MOMA.


What Will Become of Me, 1985, ongoing; two framed texts, glass jars, shelf, hair, fingernails and skin.  Private collection on loan to MOMA.

One text describes the artist’s annus horribilis, 1985,when she began this accumulation.  The second is her will.



“Adrian Piper left the United States and won’t come back,” a scandalized visitor asked, “but yet she leaves her ashes to MOMA?”

As if exile is easy.  As if we lose ourselves when we leave our natal country.

As if the artist has not loaned her body, and mind, since she was young to getting out her message: we can transcend our supposed differences because we are part of and in each other.

This will be the last in a series of these actions and this is an artist who has worked in series.


“Her problem is that sometimes she doesn’t think she is black,” an African-American visitor explained to me when I asked what her issue is with Adrian Piper. 


Think you are black is a code requiring African Americans, and those assigned as such, to live an exclusive, extensive code of conduct defined in their culture by their history and their continuing struggles. 


On her 64th birthday, the artist loaded a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, her skin significantly darkened. The accompanying note said that her ‘new racial designation would be “6.25 grey” honoring her 1/16th African heritage’. 


The criticism by this visitor of this artist misses the entire point of her life and work.



Artwork Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment,2012 by Adrian Piper

Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, 2012, digital file. 

Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Image downloaded from



The artist has offered body, mind and art to the end of freedom for individuals, for anyone. 


Freedom is defined as the state in which you see that you are not separated from others. 

(You are in connected, ever-regenerating life with with all living things.  With the earth itself.  A state which the ego consciousness of Sapiens likes to cut off.)




A detail of Context, 1970, in which the artist compiled invitations, notices etc. of her political public interactions. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin




The artist continues on her path to freedom. A journey more than 50 years old.  On which she has long since invited us to join her……….


Mokshamudra Progression, 2012, nine lithographs.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin (with light interference distorting the palm of the hand)