Banner image: Victor Hugo, Ecce Lex (Le pendu) (Ecce Lex [hanged man]), 1854. Brown ink, brown and black wash, graphite, charcoal, and white gouache on paper. 20 × 13 3/4 in. (50.8 × 34.9 cm). Maisons de Victor Hugo, Paris / Guernesey. MVHP.D.967 © Maisons de Victor Hugo, Paris / Guernesey / Roger-Viollet.
IS MEANING — of a self, a text, an object, a life — constructed or discovered? Perhaps these two processes are not as distinct or as segregated in practice as they seem to be in theory. On the one hand, if meaning is embodied in the making or the experience of being, then the reception of meaning is one of discovery and unfolding. On the other hand, if meaning is applied from the outside, then the process of making meaning is akin to constructing or building. The first model implies interconnectivity between the observer and the observed, whereas the second necessitates separation. Yet meaning rarely functions along such a rigid binary. We are individual (subjective) beings, and we are also, simultaneously, part of a system of society (objectively outside ourselves). We find our own meaning in experience, and we also regularly construct and absorb meaning from the building blocks of language and social structures. We need embodied meaning to find purpose and connection; we need constructed meaning to analyze the world around us.
Is there a point where “I” begins and “we” ends — or, instead, is self an ever-fluctuating sea of gray, punctuated by norms and biases, nature and nurture, and delicately delineated by the corporeality of skin and bones? Two very different exhibitions at the Hammer Museum are synchronously paired to offer a visual and meditative experience of questions about the boundary between self and other and the presumed bifurcation between embodied and constructed meaning. Adrian Piper: Concepts and Intuitions, 1965-2016 and Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo are on view this fall through January 6, 2019 and December 30, 2018, respectively. Piper and Hugo lived a century apart and come from different continents and cultures. She is an American woman who has been a pivotal figure in Conceptual Art since its inception in the late ’60s, and he was a French man widely known as one of the most influential Romantic writers. What could they share in common? Their approaches are ostensibly dialectical opposites, one rationalist and the other dreamy, but as Sol LeWitt — widely considered the founder of Conceptual Art — explained in Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969), “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” Side-by-side, the exhibitions offer an exhilarating chance to find and make meaning behind, around, and beyond the social, conceptual, and artistic frameworks that we typically use to understand and interpret the self, art, and society. The two disparate bodies of work share an uncanny ability to invite an easing of traditional boundaries of understandings and experience.
One thing the artists share is the experience of separation from their home country. In 1855, the writer and activist Victor Hugo arrived in his new home of Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, having been banished first from his native France for his fierce opposition to Napoleon III, and then from Belgium and from the island of Jersey. Hugo was a lifelong advocate for human rights and a critic of capital punishment. One hundred and fifty years later, around the year 2005, Adrian Piper, the first African-American woman granted a tenured position in Philosophy in the United States (at Georgetown University), arrived in her new home of Berlin having left the United States in self-professed exile. Hugo and Piper actively and persistently explore the isolating experience of self both in private and in public, inviting and challenging viewers to consider and meditate on the impact of shared experience.
Piper’s exhibition (initially curated and exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) spans a remarkable career, from her early work using text and line, through performances both in private and on the streets of New York, to performing lectures as art, and a participatory project, in which she gently but firmly commands viewers to hum upon entry to a room. Piper’s reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason led to the conceptual project Food for the Spirit (1971/1997), and also inspired her to study philosophy. While reading the iconic text, she photographed herself, both to document her interpretive experience and to remind herself that she was a body in space. The work comprises a document of this experience with a suite of 14 framed photographs of Piper on the wall, complemented by the text, encased in a glassed-in box. Anyone who has ever read Kant (or any work of dense Enlightenment-era philosophy), meditated, or lost themselves in drawing or writing or reading will relate to the sense of simultaneous dissolution and integration that happens in an immersive experience. The photographs and marked-up pages of text document the performance; the images are the rich gray-black of photographs made in a darkroom. In each one, Piper stands, hands clasped under her chest, looking straight ahead. The body or individual is discernible within the dark space with varying degrees of clarity; in some images, Piper appears to be floating, an evanescent ghost. Forty-one years later, Piper challenges the hegemony of socially constructed identities by using her website to designate herself as neither black nor white, “but rather 6.25% grey.”
With its dark tones and floating specter-like presence, this earlier Piper work shares more in common with Hugo’s brooding oeuvre than her later works. Trained as a lawyer and best known for his poetry, dramas, and novels, notably Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables, Hugo also made hundreds of drawings, prints, and collages, which he explicitly did not intend to be displayed. The exhibition, a rare chance to see his visual art, has an overall sense of intimacy, as if the viewer is sitting side-by-side with the artist in a candlelit room. The black and brown ink drawings and smudged, hand-cut stencils on view represent the craggy cliffs, castles, and other sites of his native France. They also depict various orbs and waves and stains, the cumulative effect of which is playful experimentation (these works on paper later inspired the early Surrealists). Hugo’s work is a visual document of process, the ink swirls, pools, drips, and oozes as if frozen mid-movement. His is an art of process, seeking and finding meaning through movement and production, perhaps as an antidote to the analytical practice of writing and certainly as a means to process various personal and collective traumas.
Piper’s work, although it was intended for viewers, is likewise experiential in its approach to meaning making. Near the end of the exhibition is a series of large paintings of words in the process of erasure on large chalkboards. Reminiscent of a student repeating some phrase in punishment (“I will do my homework, and the like”), the handwritten text reads, “Everything will be taken away.” The same text is repeated in numerous collages and smaller works. Initially tragic or nihilistic, the phrase readily gives way to a freeing sense of acceptance, perhaps of the artist’s move from the United States — from family, friends, and a respected position — or, more broadly, of the existentialist truth that all will ultimately disappear.
A stencil near the front of the Hugo exhibition tends to linger in the mind long after one leaves the exhibition. A rectangular sheet of white paper is cut on one side in a seemingly abstract shape with an angular extension toward the bottom of the page and a small cross shape cutout above it. The paper is smudged with thick black ink all around the open shape, which was once used as a stencil. The shape represents tombstones of three lost loved ones. Hugo made it in honor of his pregnant daughter, Léopoldine, who drowned, and her husband, Charles Vacquerie, who dove in to save her and drowned as well. Hugo expressed the magnitude of this triple loss in a stencil, and the simplicity of it will resonate profoundly with anyone who has grieved. Grief is palpable, you feel it in your bones, but also blurry, like ink swirling on a page, as dizzy as craggy cliffs over a swirling sea depicted in so many of Hugo’s drawings: “Everything will be taken away.”
One piece in Piper’s exhibition strikes a particular chord in the current climate. The project, Decide Who You Are from 1992, consists of drawings, photos, and text, including an image of a young Anita Hill gazing out with eyes full of hope. Her image is placed at the bottom of a large rectangular grid covered in tiny red typed text, quotes and comments from the infamous hearing. On the day of the press preview, Senator Susan Collins of Maine decided to vote in favor of Judge Kavanaugh, thus assuring his confirmation to the Supreme Court after a contentious congressional battle that included Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her decades earlier.
The Hugo exhibition addresses a stark and timely reality of another kind. An image of a man hanged from a tree is repeated across several frames. The original, Ecce Lex (Le pendu) [hanged man] is an ink, gouache, and charcoal drawing made in 1854 in response to the public execution of a man on the island of Guernsey — a testament to Hugo’s lifelong activism against the death penalty. In 1861, in a rare exception, Hugo allowed his brother-in-law, Paul Chenay, to make a print of the drawing, which Chenay made and distributed in recognition of John Brown, an American abolitionist who was also hanged. This stark image is the only one on display with such a direct representation of a person, depicting his hanged body in full view in recognition of the man that was, at once humanizing the individual determined to be outside society, whether criminal or agitator, and condemning the inhumanity of the practice of capital punishment.
I find myself gazing at a simple but profound black ink on paper drawing, so delicate it would surely crumble if exposed to full sunlight for any length of time, and I am not sure if there is an answer to the source of meaning. The uncertainty is compelling. I don’t want answers but rather to feel a response and to continue to uncover new questions. These two exhibitions are successful together because the artists each, in their own ways, refuse simplistic binaries. Thought is in and of experience; the self is innate and social. In these strange days, art has a particular ability to help us make meaning of current events and to encourage a certain form of collective voice and action. Piper’s exhibition ends with a video from 2007, “Adrian Moves to Berlin,” in which the artist is seen dancing in the streets of Berlin. She is at once lost in her own movement and intimately engaged with the city around her. Everything will be taken away, one day; but today, we are here in this moment together.
Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and educator, with an emphasis on art and social justice. She is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.