Exploring Space: The Art of Adrian Piper

photo installation
Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma, 1978. Mixed media installation: Empty wall, black and white photograph framed under reflective Plexiglas, 18 x 18” (45.7 x 45.7 cm); audio tape, lighting. #78004. Collection University of California Art Museum. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

In continuing my series looking at the use of space in art, Adrian Piper, a trailblazing figure in conceptual art, has continually pushed boundaries and expanded our understanding of artistic expression. One of the most compelling aspects of Piper’s work is her adept use of space, which serves as a canvas for social commentary and introspection. Here’s a few aspects of space in her artwork to provoke thought, evoke emotion, and inspire action…

1. Physical Space: Piper often manipulates physical space to challenge viewers and demand attention. In her installations, she confronts audiences with bold messages displayed on large-scale banners, such as in “My Calling (Card) #1.” By occupying physical space with her words, Piper compels viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about race, identity, and societal norms.

2. Temporal Space: Time is a central theme in Piper’s work, and she frequently utilizes temporal space to disrupt conventional narratives. In pieces like “Funk Lessons,” Piper transforms gallery spaces into interactive environments, inviting participants to engage in communal experiences that transcend traditional notions of art and spectatorship.

3. Psychological Space: Piper’s exploration of psychological space delves into the complexities of human consciousness and perception. Through multimedia installations like “Cornered” and “What It’s Like, What It Is #3,” Piper immerses viewers in introspective journeys, challenging them to confront their biases and preconceptions.

4. Social Space: Piper’s art often intersects with social activism, and she actively engages with social spaces to facilitate dialogue and change. In participatory projects like “Catalysis” and “Food for the Spirit,”

A standout piece from Adrian Piper’s body of work that captivates me is “Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma,” created in 1978. This mixed media installation features an empty wall adorned with a single black and white photograph, framed under reflective Plexiglas, measuring 18 x 18”. Accompanying the visual element is an audio tape and carefully orchestrated lighting, all contributing to the immersive experience. What sets this installation apart is Piper’s deliberate placement of the photograph as the sole visual element in the space. The image portrays black individuals walking toward the viewer, their gaze compelling and demanding examination. By situating the photograph in isolation, Piper prompts viewers to confront the dynamics of the gaze, inviting introspection and dialogue about race, perception, and identity. In this way, “Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma” serves not only as a striking visual composition but also as a catalyst for deeper exploration of societal constructs and personal perspectives. Piper disrupts normative social spaces and creates opportunities for collective reflection and action.

Additionally, Piper’s participatory piece, “The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3,” exemplifies her commitment to instigating change and holding viewers accountable. I recall participating in this artwork at MOMA in 2018. Visitors were invited to sign a contract with the artist, pledging to fulfill their commitments. This interactive installation underscores Piper’s desire for action, not just observation or contemplation.

Piper’s innovative use of space in her artwork reflects her multifaceted approach to artmaking and her dedication to provoking meaningful engagement. By navigating physical, temporal, psychological, social, and virtual spaces, Piper challenges viewers to reconsider their perspectives, question societal norms, and actively contribute to positive change. As we navigate Piper’s artistic universe, we are called not only to look and feel but to think critically and, most importantly, to act.

drawing of a woman
Sally Jane Brown: Tribute to Adrian Piper, pencil and ink on paper


In crafting this tribute to Adrian Piper (left), I am acutely aware of the tension inherent in my position as a white artist engaging with themes of race, identity, and representation. The text “We need to talk” resonates deeply with the conversation sparked by Piper’s work and my own exploration within the feminist lineage of art. It serves as a poignant reminder of the imperative to engage in meaningful dialogue, to confront discomfort, and to strive for greater understanding and inclusivity in the artistic discourse. It’s important to continue this important conversation with openness, humility, and a commitment to fostering positive change.