b.O.s. 9.2 / Food for the Spirit / Laura Larson

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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I rigged up a camera and tape recorder next to [a] mirror, so that every time the fear of losing myself overtook me and drove me to the ‘reality check’ of the mirror, I was able to both record my physical appearance objectively and also record myself on tape repeating the passage in Critique that was currently driving me to self-transcendence.1

Food for the Spirit documents a season of Adrian Piper’s young life stripped down to her reflection in the mirror. The series of photographs was produced during a self-imposed isolation in the summer of 1971 in New York City when she immersed herself in Immanuel Kant’s text on metaphysics, Critique of Pure Reason (1781). By her account, her studies, coupled with an intense practice of fasting and yoga, brought her to a brink of disassociation.

Adrian Piper, Food for the Spirit, 1971, Selenium toned gelatin silver print , 14 ½ x 14 ¾ , Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI                                             

A photograph of a black woman in a darkened room made in a darkroom. Food for the Spirit invites us to look carefully at the terms of how a photograph comes to life. In this intimately scaled print, Piper appears before the mirror nude from the waist up. Her gaze meets itself and she holds the camera directly below her breasts with her fingers softly pointing down in a gesture of grounding. Her flat affect withholds the disclosure of identity often assumed in the act of making a self-portrait. Details about the room emerge and recede: the Xs of the security gate slash the hexagonal web of safety glass, a wall of books on the far wall of the room, the soft flare of light made by a bare bulb ceiling fixture at the top of the frame. Across the series, her figure remains fixed in the center with only slight shifts in framing as she performs her photographic ritual, an accrued testimony that counters the silence and vulnerability of her body. From a distance, a grouping of these prints read as a succession of dark gray squares, shading into black. The images yield Piper’s figure and the subtle details of the scene as the viewer gets closer to peer into them. She surfaces in the image, one and the same with the grain of the print, yet her appearance is not a mirage. Light renders blackness not as shadow but as the very material of representation itself, rich with detail. In another work from the series, her dress dissolves into the inky well of the room; she continues to look back at herself. Barely illuminated, her ritual traces her adamant and enduring presence in the space.

What can and can’t be seen in this photograph? The photographs in this series are, by the technical playbook, poorly made—the film is underexposed, the prints are muddy and lack detail, and the framing is standoffish. An underexposed film negative will yield a print with coarse grain, reduced tonal range, and collapsed depth of field, all of which undermine the photographic claim to transparency. The playbook is a script of mastery—how to control the light, how to craft the illusion of deep space. The presumed transparency of the medium is at the heart of John Szarkowski’s notion that photography functions either as a mirror or a window, that photographs position the viewer to look out into the world or into the soul of the artist.2 In troubling this formulation, Food for the Spirit performs a ‘reality check’ on the medium’s claims to objective representation. What’s lost in an underexposed film photograph is detail in the shadow and Piper’s photographs are all shadow.

Without the illusion of depth in these scenes, our attention rests on the surface of the print and how Piper’s body is one and the same with the space. The paper and the image bleed into one another. Piper eschews the window into her consciousness, the gloss of understanding, for a more complicated tangle with the self-portrait, a term I will use in a provisional sense here. There is no window or mirror. We are witnessing a private ritual that refuses to disclose character or personality but rather insists, I am here. She insists on the physical reality of her body and the photograph itself as a material form. In her master-less handling of film, Piper asserts her racialized and gendered presence squarely in the frame.

In the 1970s, Kodak developed the Shirley card, a reference tool designed for calibrating skin tone in color printing. The cards featured portraits of white women, centering white skin tones and identity as the norm of color balance and optimal visibility. Piper’s figure is the antithesis of the Shirleys. In the repeated presentation of her body to the mirror/camera, she complicates the relationship between identity and visual representation with her canny use of analog film textures. The photographs cast the question of legibility—how we see her, a light-skinned black woman—onto a consideration of the materials themselves. Piper’s impulse to moor herself as an image doubles as a refusal to surrender the self to image and the terms of the materials’ inherent bias. There is a no wrapped up in her repetition of I am here. The silence of photography becomes an apt and resonant space to stage the dissociative conditions of black life that insist on both visibility and the threat of disappearance.

the fear of losing myself

She is looking at herself and she’s looking at us. She is a body and a spirit and she’s an image. She is an image which is not a transcendent self. I imagine the time between the split seconds of these photographs and the swell of her consciousness. I imagine her interior life that can’t be photographed.

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This is one of four essays from the ninth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s 9.1 / Cardi B’s Ankles / Adrienne Brown
b.O.s. 9.3 / Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves / Qiana Whitted
b.O.s. 9.4 / Black America Again / Alessandra Raengo

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. “Adrian Piper, Food for the Spirit,” RISD Museum, Retrieved June 6, 2020,  https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/food-spirit-2000972?return=%2Fart-design%2Fcollection%2Ffood-spirit-2000971
  2. John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978).
Laura Larson
Laura Larson is an artist and writer based in Columbus, OH. Her first book, Hidden Mother (Saint Lucy Books, 2017), was shortlisted for the Aperture/Paris Photo First Book Prize. She is currently at work on two books: City of Incurable Women and All The Women I Know. Her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Whitney Museum of Art.