Having already been familiar with Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards and Mythic Being I wanted to see what else I could learn about her art. As I searched the web, I thought about a fellow undergraduate student who shared my freshman year art history class. I knew he was a fellow photo student, but our paths rarely crossed since we each worked in different gang dark rooms. I had been sitting outside taking a break from lab work when he handed a card to me and sat down nearby when usually he’d pass by and never speak. He was a unique person who liked to eat ice cream with a big spoon from a gallon-sized container. The container of ice cream would last him about three days worth of snacking during work breaks. I flipped over the card to read it:
I am gay.
My father refused to eat at the same table with me after I came out to my family. That was 7 years ago. I am now 22. I ask you, my friend, to understand that being gay is not a disease. If you share food with me you will not get AIDS; you will not become gay. What I hope could happen if you were to eat with me is that you question your own perceptions about sexuality in relation to mine, and find that I am not guilty of any wrongdoing. I deserve to be loved and respected just like you.
I don’t expect you to share food with me, but I do keep an extra spoon in my pocket.
I hope I have not made you uncomfortable, but I really like you and want to be friends.
Instantly, I wondered if he thought I felt some kind of judgment toward him, but realized he was taking a tack in his own way from Adrian Piper whom we had studied earlier that week. I was so touched in the moment that I didn’t know how to respond except with a smile and to get back to my work. Soon enough, my new friend and I shared ice cream from his gallon container. As our coursework put us in closer daily proximity to one another, we shared wonderful meals and coffee chats throughout our years at NMSU. Whether or not I would have taken his extra spoon to eat food with him is not the point of sharing my memory, rather I was impressed by how many years later an artist’s work can offer up an answer to someone who suffered from lack of understanding and acceptance.
While looking at and reading about Piper’s work (and revisiting Wojnarowicz’s works), I found myself thinking that I am a boring white person. Sometimes when I have struggled for direction in my own work, I have had thoughts like, “I haven’t suffered enough”, “I am not displaced”, “My internal wrestling is not legitimate by comparison to that of others”. I have asked myself, “Who will care about my personal history in my art?” “What in this world, where there have been and will continue to be real fights, is important about my identity?” And now I wonder how I have changed, learned, and who I am today.
Often when I view and/or read about outstanding, thought provoking, and sometimes heart wrenching art created as commentary, observations, explanations, clarifications, etc. on life experiences by persons with different ethnicities than mine, different sexual orientations than mine, who have been traumatically dislocated, who have been personally wrenched by war, or who have suffered lifelong loss of self as acknowledged, as valid and valuable, I find myself feeling alienated from inside much of the art world. Please understand that I feel deep compassion and empathy, but I realize I am oh-so-privileged as most boring white people are. I have asked myself why have I felt a sense of estrangement. There are no clear answers to myself except I lean toward a greater desire than I experience, the implications of which are challenging to put a finger on. Perhaps, I am one of those people who are self-implicated by wishing that to be a boring white artist shouldn’t have to be so hard in its own right. Oh hypocrite, am I!
After reading Wojnarowicz’s horrifying account in Post Cards from America: X -Rays from Hell about what his friend (and he) experienced with the deaths of their friends and lovers, and what their own bodies were experiencing, to be the boring white person that I am is not so bad. In trying to make sense of my easier existence I discovered that Michael Stipe (lead singer of R.E.I.) read the essay out loud at Artists Space as a combined effort with the organization in support of the Andy Warhol Foundation who had demanded that The Smithsonian immediately restore Wojnarowicz censored work as part of the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Stipe claimed: “I decided to read this piece by David Wojnarowicz to illuminate and contextualize the frame of mind that prevailed during the very difficult end of the 1980’s; a political regime and administration that refused to recognize the AIDs crisis, a hostile and frightened public, and a community desperate to be heard, cared for, acknowledged. The piece resonates as strongly now as then, and the question is how much of this has changed or improved over the past 21 years.” To me, Stipes’ last statement is where the lingering truth lies. And now, a couple of years after hearing Jonathan Katz speak here in Las Cruces about some of the Hide/Seek works and all of the politics surrounding the exhibition, it hits home even greater than it did in my harried undergraduate existence then. You can see a video of Katz talking about the importance of the exhibition here:
I found and read excerpts from Piper’s excellent writings about xenophobia and the indexical present. Her works Catalysis (1970), Mythic Being (1970s), and I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear (1970) have been described by Carol Stakenas (executive director, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and Marina Zurkow (multi-media artist, Professor at Tisch School of the Arts) as “the first examples of ‘the indexical present,’ a highly effective (yet commonly criticized as confrontational) technique that Piper uses to situate the work in the immediate present and create a direct relationship to the viewer by the use of words like ‘I,’ ‘You,’ ‘Here,’ and ‘This,’ instead of ‘We,’ ‘There,’ etc. By placing the viewer in the same time frame as the object being observed, the role of the artist as a mediator between the viewer and the subject of the work is diminished, as is the ability of the viewer to place barriers in the way of an honest consideration of the subject presented.”
I knew a person who said he was a self-xenophobe. I still have no idea what that could mean except perhaps self-hate (No. I hope not!). Self-preservation? To me, all of the artworks we learned about this past week point fingers. The works imply, overtly and subversively, a predominance of great ignorance that has prevailed, and sadly still does, in our collective human existence. I view these artworks as signifiers meant to teach us lessons through their messages that do in fact implicate us in myriad ways and from that which is signified through them, it is our responsibility to find and preserve commonality even in the perceived weakest link between us. If these works want anything as time has moved forward from their beginnings, they ask us to act as witness, to carry forward—to burn into our collective memory why they were created and why they exist in critical discourse. To me, this offers a kind of self-centering against the occasional self-deprecating thoughts of being a boring white person, for in reality there is a place for everyone’s art that is valuable in thought as explored first as reductive through the individual and then as collective bridge to all experience.
 Stipes recorded reading: http://remhq.com/extras/post-cards-from-america.php
- Thelma Golden. “What’s White…?”. 1993 Biennial Exhibition (Whitney Biennial). Elisabeth Sussman, et al. New York: Whitney Museum of Art with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1993. Pp. 26-35. Print.
- Adrian Piper. “Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self-Arewness”. (1981) Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Eds. 1996. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 787-791. Print.
- Christopher Reed. “Queer and Beyond”. Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas. 2011. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 229-280. Print.
- David Wojnarowicz. “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell”. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Eds. 1996. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 373-376. Print.