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In/Visible Truths
The Photographic Work of Clara Gutsche, Adrian Piper and Allyson Clay

Adrian Piper, Food For the Spirit 1971
Adrian Piper, Food For the Spirit 1971

Adrian Piper, Food For the Spirit 1971, from a private loft performance, silver gelatin print.
Food for the Spirit consists of fourteen black and white self-portraits and an audiotape of Piper (who has a Ph.D. in philosophy) reciting passages from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is a performative documentation of when “she became ‘obsessed’ with Kantian thought, fasting, practicing yoga, and isolating herself. Fearful that she was losing touch with the physical world...she searched for ways of corporeal reassurance1 (18). The work examines how a private, autobiographical experience asserts visibility and relates to the broader political issue of acknowledging the other’s presence. In each image Piper boldly stands naked, or partially clad, before a mirror, holding her camera; she simultaneously stares directly at herself and the viewer, refusing to look away or be dismissed. The dark, low-contrast images are intimate, and quietly defy any exoticism or victimization imposed by historical conventions of Jezebel or Mammy. In many of the photographs Piper seems to almost disappear from view, referencing her personal quest and “Olympia’s2 maid, [who] like all the other ‘peripheral Negroes,’ is a robot conveniently made to disappear into the background drapery3 (153).

Yet by holding the camera, Piper takes control of her own image and confirms her existence. Piper’s recitation of Kant’s philosophical arguments combined with the repetition of her steady self-scrutiny, confirms her status as a rational and embodied subject. As Lorraine O’Grady states in her essay “Olympia’s Maid,” “...the catalytic moment for the subjective black nude might well be Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit...[and] now seems a paradigm for the willingness to look, to get past embarrassment and retrieve the mutilated body...if we are to gain the clear-sightedness needed to overthrow hierarchical binaries...”3 (156). O’Grady’s “hierarchical binaries” refer to the problematic definition of ‘woman,’ who was normalized as white within the discourse of 1970s feminism. Although feminism made great strides forward for white women, it was often blind to the different needs and situations of women of colour. Yet in order to develop an inclusive definition of women, it was first necessary for women of colour to define themselves. Having been unseen for so long, it was a slow and difficult process for women of colour to reclaim and articulate their life experiences. In this respect, Piper’s Food for the Spirit initiated a recuperative process of self-definition, which would eventually lead to a more inclusive definition for women.

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1. Maurice Berger, “Styles of Radical Will: Adrian Piper and the Indexical Present,” Adrian Piper A Retrospective (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery University of Maryland Publishers, 1999).

2. Edouard Manet's Olympia (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Olympia.htm). Last verified: 15 October 2005.

3. Lorraine O'Grady, “Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” New Feminist Criticism: Art, Identity, Action, eds. Joanna Frueh, Cassandra L. Langer, Arlene Raven (Icon Editions, Harper Collins New York, 1994).

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