The permanent collection didn’t float my boat one little bit – too dry, rarified, up its own arse – but the building itself turned out to be the real stunner, the breathtaking drama of its cavernous stark white spaces easily outstripping its contents. I didn’t like the Piper exhibition one little bit – by turns wilfully obscure and annoyingly preachy – except for one two-part installation piece, which left me reeling.
A plain white cubic structure stood in the middle of the floor, with an open doorway leading to a darkened interior within. On the right hand wall as I entered, a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.” Turning left, I found a darkened booth, with a single chair facing a smallish screen on the wall opposite. On one side of the chair, a box of tissues; on the other side, a waste paper basket. On the wall above the back of the chair: an image of a smiling George Bush senior, shaking hands with three or four police officers. As I sat down, feeling like I was entering a pr0n booth (what else could the tissues be for?), I turned my gaze towards the film which was silently playing on the screen in front of me; it was the famous video footage of Rodney King’s beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1990s. The video was looped, giving the impression that the beating never stopped. I had never watched this footage in full before, and sat there open-mouthed, mesmerised by the brutality. Perhaps the tissues were there to dry my bleeding heart liberal tears; or maybe their presence suggested that on some level, I was secretly getting off on my self-righteous outrage. Three or four loop repetitions in, I got up and left King to his fate.
Further down the same gallery, an identically proportioned cube, this time in plain black. In the entrance, the same Solzhenitsyn quote, this time in white lettering on a black background. Round the corner to the left, the same little booth, chair, tissues and waste paper bin, its black walls leaving the area in almost total darkness. No film was playing this time, although I thought I could vaguely make out the image of a black face on the wall in front of me. I sat down; immediately I had done so, a bright light flashed on in front of me, illuminating the booth and revealing the screen opposite to be…a mirror. Rooted to the spot in shock, I found myself staring into my own eyes, my expression frozen. Behind me, and also visible in the mirror: the same image of Bush congratulating the cops. I had joined the group. A few seconds later, the light flicked off and the screen lit up, replacing my reflection with an illuminated monochrome photo of a badly beaten black man. Maybe it was Rodney King himself; I didn’t know. A voiceover started up, relaying a message of mournful defiance – I have completely forgotten what it said. As the tape finished, the light flicked back on again, leaving me staring at my own reflection once more, my fixed expression registering even more stunned shock than before. The message seemed to be: you are complicit in this, whether you like it or not. Take a good look at your reaction.
As I stumbled out of the black cube, feeling like I had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer, I caught sight of one of Piper’s large photo-montages on the wall opposite. A photograph of the hanging victim of a lynch mob was (as far as I recall) juxtaposed with a photograph of Martin Luther King speaking at a rally. Superimposed on these images was some text, which said something like: This may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.
A pity, then, that the power of these pieces was so badly undercut by the knee-jerk, white-liberal-baiting, self-righteous, one-dimensional, overly literal preachiness of much of the rest of the exhibition.