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Embodied AvatarsGenealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance$
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Uri McMillan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781479802111

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479802111.001.0001

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Plastic Possibilities

Plastic Possibilities

Adrian Piper’s Adamant Self-Alienation

(p.95) 3 Plastic Possibilities
Embodied Avatars

Uri McMillan

NYU Press

This chapter focuses on conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s dense explorations of objecthood and her bold experiments with disorientation, self-estrangement, and becoming a confrontational art object. Utilizing Daphne Brooks’s concept of “afro-alienation,” it argues that Piper’s complex praxis of self-observation and an aggressive non-identification with her audience is suggestive of a strategic self-alienation employed by black historical actors, albeit in the halcyon days of 1970s performance art. Building on conceptual art’s emphasis on ideas and process, and minimalism’s antipathy towards formal art objects, Piper deftly manipulates her body as artwork and as a catalytic agent for audiences. This chapter maps Piper’s unique traversal from Minimalism to Conceptualism to performance art, to reveal her agile attempts at aesthetic mobility. Following this, the chapter briefly ponders Piper’s relationship to incipient notions of “feminist art” and “black art.” It, then, focus on two sets of Piper’s lesser-known performances—the Aretha Franklin Catalysis (1972) and The Spectator Series (1973). Both lead to The Mythic Being performances (1973-75), in which Piper dressed as a third-world male avatar in blaxplotation-esque attire, before ceasing street performances and shifting to a strictly visual icon. The chapter dissects the various artistic strategies and ideological aims of The Mythic Being performances, posters, and advertisements. Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of Piper’s very public withdrawal of her work from the 2013 exhibition “Radical Presence,” arguing that the tactical removal of her work is in closer dialogue with her larger corpus, than we may initially think.

Keywords:   alienation, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Aretha Franklin Catalysis, Black dance, objecthood, Spectator Series, Mythic Being, Radical Presence, self estrangement

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