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Keith Piper

By Rachel Garfield

1. Speaking with a forked tongue

There is something of the epic in the art of Keith Piper.

His work draws on a complex interlacing of multiple voices to create new meanings out of old stereotypes. Ostensibly his strategy arises from the critiques of the 1980s concerning institutions of power, particularly that of the art institute. And while art dealing with the postcolonial currently hones a neo-minimalist aesthetic, Piper has maintained a maximalist aesthetic constitutive of his concerns with history, agency and the archive. Time bends and space collapses as the subject in history is also the subject of history, implicating us all through his critique.

Piper's approach to working is broadly conceptual and demonstrates a commitment to the tradition of collage, arguably a cornerstone of 20th Century modern art practice. Early text and image-based paintings, such as 'The Weak against the Weak' (1982) or 'The Nanny of the Nation Gathers Her Flock' (1987) engage with strategies of disjuncture through a collage of imagery taken from the media, drawing from the works of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers or Leon Golub. By the end of the 1980s Piper had ceased making paintings or objects and had moved to computer based multi media work, but he continued a strategy of combining newspaper reports, and objects of cultural value and metaphor to confer searing critique on power relations arising out of his experience as a Black British male coming of age in the 1970s.

2. A Maximalist Aesthetic

Keith Piper rose to prominence in Britain in the 1980s, organizing exhibitions and conferences while still a student.

He famously met Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney at art school and they formed the core of a burgeoning movement to bring black artists to the attention of the wider art world through exhibitions, conferences and published writings . Piper was thus key in creating a critical mass of attention and opportunity around the production of art by Black artists, the legacy of which is still felt today. This history is well documented (and fought over!) in Britain and Piper himself has written eloquently about the development and problematic of Black art in Britain, as well as about his own work and the politics that inform and generate the thinking in the work: 'Resisting Biometrics / Evolving Cyberebonics', and 'A Fictional tourist in Europe' to mention some recent examples.

All of his works are meticulously researched, every motif being loaded with significance depending on the geography or specific subject of the piece. His installations embody his maximalist aesthetic: multi media, made up of screens and objects, wall texts, music, spoken narration, texts in the catalogue. Overload is his stock in trade. Much of his installation work is specifically commissioned and made for the particular location of exhibition and each piece seems to arise out of painstaking and obsessive collecting; of information, of images and ideas reminiscent, say, of the montage of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil as much as Romare Bearden's projected collages. Yet, like the best of Marker, Piper evokes the storyteller rather than the journalist and it is through the use of montage that he foregrounds this effect. To choose to employ montage is to draw on a tradition that has been one of the key elements of critique in 20th Century modern art. What is at stake here is the active viewing subject, the viewer who can create meaning through the construction and reconstruction of the fragment.

3. Collage

There is something of Piper's work that operates concurrently as both montage and collage .(4)

The significance of Piper's use of collage can be seen in some analyses by Rosalind Krauss and Kobena Mercer: Rosalind Krauss argues in the catalogue of 'l'Amour Fou'.Photography and Surrealism, that collage was employed in Dada to disrupt the 'seamlessness of the indexical in photography', crucial for the emergence of a 'language effect' that opens up a reading, an interpretation of what otherwise would be believed without question .(5) Krauss uses in her example "The Phenomenon of Ecstasy' by Salvador Dali from 1933, which brings together samples of ears from Andre Betillon's eugenics photography identifying criminals with images of ecstatic women, a statue, a chair. What is problematic in Dali's imagery becomes a critique in the work of Piper. Another counterpoint is the artist Romare Bearden, whose photomontage projections used 'post-cubist space' and Black vernacular imagery to remark upon the condition of African Americans .(6) Kobena Mercer in 'Romare Bearden, 1964, Collage as Kunstwollen' writes of the significance of the rip in his work as critique. There are obvious links through subject matter, with Piper's concern with surveillance and the fetishisation of the black subject in Dali, and the social production of the Black Subject in Bearden. However, the legacy I am interested in here is not concerned with subject matter but the relationship between stylistic strategies, underpinned by a sophisticated and dynamic disjunction of image, text, object and narration, which function as critique across all three artists. So the fragment operates not just to activate the viewer but to create meaning in the work through the tensions of a narrative regained in pieces.

4. Go West Young Man

For example in the Film Go West Young Man from 1994, the undulating sea is the first image, becoming a backdrop to the objects that follow in close succession such as a spinning globe; a digitally manipulated rectangle of pebbles; a map of slavery ports, a square of red tinted sea; a pendant of a head.

This rush of images is what transforms the montage into collage, as linear definitions becomes a dense depth of collage. But somehow in this piece, the sea is a contemplative moment and the calm before the storm. The narrator begins telling a story "Go west young man, I first heard that joke 400 years ago I died laughing' soon repeating the phrase with the add-on, "been dying with monotonous regularity ever since". The father responds, telling the son about the trials and tribulations to come: knowledge and cultural memory passing through the generations. As the father talks and the son responds, images pass through the screen. The visual links are water and the narrator. However, the mediated images such as historical engravings both famous and obscure; of lynchings and slave ships and contemporary reportage of riots, sportsmen and soldiers fleetingly emerge and disappear amid a litany of spoken injustice being meted out upon the black male then and now. The pace of the narrator and the speed of the passing images work up to a final denouement of the black body marked as commodity, not human, referencing the wider politics of human as surplus and cipher for the gain of others. The aggregate of imagery, sound and narration overloads the meaning so that we as viewers feel the weight and pressure of history on the present: a history that is never complete and ever unfolding.

5. The Chronicler

Walter Benjamin, in 'The Storyteller', makes a distinction between the writer of history who explains the world, and the chronicler who tells a story of history to model a future.

He suggests that the importance of telling stories lies in the ongoing interpretive possibilities of the form .(7) This is apparent in Piper's repetitive retakes of works as well as through his continual remodeling of the same motifs through different manifestations in separate works. In each retelling the meaning shifts, alerting us again to contingency, for example in Piper's most recent film The Perfect City.

The Perfect City embodies the chronicler through the narrator. Benjamin describes the chronicler as the medieval precursor to the historian, who interpreted the world through 'the divine plan of salvation' unlike the historian who is striving for 'accuracy' and 'explanation'. In the film, the narrator recounts his task of designing a city as a cautionary tale. The narrator is the artist, glimpsed in the opening shot. He builds, literally, a city out of card printed with medieval architectural illustrations, while he contemplates the implications of the city as a poetic device. Other visual references skip through time: such as a Breugel painting of the Tower of Babel, contemporary commercial skyscrapers, and digital architectural drawings. Piper's earlier installations of A Ship Called Jesus and the Exploded City are both reworked here to powerful effect. In The Perfect City the collage has given way to montage and the viewer experiences the unfolding of thoughts through the imagery, sound and narration of it's essayist film form. It is slower in pace than many of his other pieces, although still dense. Divided into five days, its thematic chapters act as a holder of memories - of drowning; of contamination; of amputation; of cleansing and of burning. Despite the evocation of memory this is a nostalgia free zone. The sound and image are more like science fiction than psycho-geography. The narrator, if anything, is doom laden, a Jeremiah, the voice of god, imagining a future by looking through the past; a further example of the way in which Piper draws deep for a commentary on the contemporary. Blackness is naturalized here through reference without foregrounding specificity and the subject is the Subject of Power.

6. Perfect City

A Ship Called Jesus was an installation that explored the relationship between slavery, Christianity and the Black community in Britain; positing the Old Testament as a force for identification both in activism and in conservatism.

In the Perfect City the bible is a cipher for the city as a symbol of the exertion of Anglo -American power over its subjects. It is also Piper's acknowledgment of Christianity as the cornerstone of Western ideology in the contemporary world, or at least of the triumph of Christian ideology in a US dominated post 9/11 world. This is a film of paradox that both confirms and confounds its god-like narration. In the final chapter, 'Day Five: The Memory of Burning' The Perfect City's overriding thesis is revealed through a reference by the narrator to two angels sent to Sodom and Gomorrah to search for ten pious men to counteract the city's tendency towards chaos .(8) The two angels are represented by medieval illustrations; two B29's diving over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the narrator flicking through photos of scarred and burned victims of war: the narrator ponders, "I wonder for God's fondness for the purifying flame?". Clarity is brought at the end of the film - the United States of America is referred to as "The nation of control', while in front of the burning card city, a photo of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre is held aloft by the gloved hands of the narrator, also a metaphor of the twin angels, no doubt. "No more water, fire next time" . (9)

The voice of Keith Piper's films is distinctive: judging the system and finding it wanting. We have come to expect a neo-minimal trope from work that operates through a transnational critique, but in this respect amongst others Piper stands out, against the grain, offering a singular voice of complexity and agency in the face of the injustices of history. It is unusual to find so strident a voice amid the cacophony of neo liberal critiques of the status quo. And it is the voice that remains long after the complex overlay of imagery has left the screens.


(1) Of course many more artists were part of this development. See Chambers, Eddie, Joseph, Tam, The Art Pack: A History of Black Artists in Britain, London Borough of Haringey, 1988; Mercer, Kobena, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1994; Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, (ed) David A Bailey, Ian Baucom, Sonia Boyce, Duke University Press, 2005 amongst others.
(2) 'Resisting Biometrics / Evolving Cyberebonics', 2004,
(3) In Unpacking Europe (eds), Salah Hassan, Iftikhar, Dadi, Ken Lum, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam, 2002, pp 386-387
(4)Montage as outlined by Eisenstein is 'the spectator is compelled to proceed along the self same creative road that the author travelled' (Eisenstein:1943, 43.)
(5)Krauss, Rosallind, 'Photography in the Service of Surrealism', Art of the Twentieth Century', Jason Gaiger, Paul Wood (eds), 2003, Open University, pp. 114-132
(6)Cosmopolitan Modernisms (ed) Mercer, Kobena, Iniva/MIT press, 2005, pp. 124-145, Kobena Mercer also cites the significance of the us of mediated imagery as an acknowledgement of fantasy, or example, Africa as fantasy not as the authentic in his work.
(7)Benjamin, Walter, 'The Storyteller', Illuminations, Pimlico, 1999, p 95
(8)This is somewhat reminiscent of Zygmunt Bauman's analysis of the Modernity being an ideology of order and anti-Semitism a cipher for the anxiety of the lack of order that Jews represent by being international - the weeds in the tidy garden of modernity.
(9)As often with Piper's metaphors there are several layers to this reference, the phrase is almost certainly a quote from the James Baldwin (1963) novel however the sci-fi TV drama directed by Tom Mclaughlin (1993) and a documentary about the riots in Crown Heights (1992) were all of the same title.

Rachel Garfield, August 2008

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