The phrase “Pretend not to know what you know” recurs in many works by American philosopher and visual artist Adrian Piper. Rather than a command or a request, in Piper’s practice, the phrase is needling—gesturing toward a common cognitive dissonance that distances us from any implication in socio-political imbalances.
“A Synthesis of Intuitions” at MoMA took Piper and four curators four years to put together, and is her most comprehensive retrospective since she won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015. The chronologically arranged exhibition has brought together more than 290 works, including paintings, drawings, performance documentation, sound pieces and installations.
At 69, Piper clearly gives no fucks what you think of her; going through this unflinching retrospective, I wonder if she ever did.
Piper’s humour, patience, frankness and rationality speak to different audiences simultaneously—and differently, bringing discomfort to some, and relief to others. I loved being surrounded by a body of work that I had previously only accessed through reproductions and writing. I stood in room-sized installations, and lingered on video works and sound pieces featuring the artist’s voice. Repeat visits seemed necessary: in a couple of hours, I could only take in the tone and texture of a body of work that has taken decades to develop.
Whether using her own body or not, Piper’s range is evident from the beginning: her criticality, specifically her refusal to accept everything that has been taken for granted as “okay”; her profound self-awareness; her encouraging of a similar self-awareness in the viewer; her wry wit; her relentless inquiry into ethical imbalances.
Piper carefully protects both the creation and the preservation of her work. For years the School of Visual Arts and Harvard alum supported her practice through a simultaneous career in academia, gaining a financial autonomy she says was essential to making her art. She started the Adrian Piper Research Archive (ARPA) in 2002, a dedicated resource for those who might be interested in her life and work not only as an artist, but also as a philosopher and yogi.
A final video in “A Synthesis of Intuitions” shows her dancing in Alexanderplatz in 2007. Now, at 69, Piper clearly gives no fucks what you think of her; going through this unflinching retrospective, I wonder if she ever did.