Transcending Common Understandings of Conceptual Art: An Analysis of Adrian Piper’s “What Will Become of Me” (1985, ongoing)

Written by Nicholas Raffoul

Edited by Catriona Reid

Adrian Piper’s (b. 1948) works from the 1980s are often unevenly discussed in the literature of conceptual art, especially in comparison to her earlier and more recognizable works from the 1960s and 1970s. As a conceptual artist, Piper interrogates the power of institutions and her own place in the world, employing her own physical body as medium to do so. Piper’s What Will Become of Me (1985, ongoing) is a work that embodies this concept of the physical body as a means of rendering art related to the larger female African-American experience and institutional critique [fig. 1].[i] The work consists of twelve honey jars filled with Piper’s hair, gathered from 1985 to the present day, showing the graying of her dark black hair over time.[ii] Two smaller jars consist of her skin flakes and fingernail clippings, which she adds to periodically.[iii] To the side of the shelf of jars is a framed “Statement of Intent” signed by Piper in 1989, four years after the start of the work, stating that she will donate her cremated ashes to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where the piece is currently held, as the final addition to the work.[iv]

Fig. 1: Adrian Piper, ​What Will Become of Me​ (1985-). Framed text, glass jars, hair, fingernails, and skin. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA.

Curator, writer, and art critic Lucy Lippard was involved in multiple exhibitions displaying Adrian Piper’s work.[v] Lippard and Piper share the belief that institutional critique is a fundamental aspect of conceptual art, among other characteristics detailed by Lippard and John Chandler in their text “The Dematerialization of Art.”[vi] Lippard and Chandler argue that conceptual art is an “art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively,” rejecting the “emotional/intuitive process of art-making,” which provokes a dematerialization of art, leading the end product to “[become] wholly obsolete.”[vii] Sol Lewitt, another theorist of the dematerialization of art, stresses that the most crucial feature of conceptual art is the idea of the work. He writes:

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art…It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore…he would want it to be emotionally dry…Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eyes or emotion.”[viii]

In relation to What Will Become of Me,however, Piper transcends these definitions of conceptual art in several ways: the production and reception of the piece is highly emotional, and the work itself is arguably spiritual, quasi-diaristic, and partly memorializing. This essay argues that What Will Become of Me diverges from common perceptions of conceptual art as presented by Lippard, Chandler, and Lewitt, demonstrating that Piper underwent an emotional process to create such a personal piece, thus extending the boundaries of what a conceptual work of art can be. 

What Will Become of Me defies Lippard and Chandler’s rejection of an emotional creative process, a common quality of conceptual art. A document detailing Piper’s personal hardships in 1985, the year she created this work, reveals her crumbling marriage, the death of her father, and her denial of tenure from the University of Michigan.[ix] At this point in her life Piper fell into isolation, feeling the loss of the aspects of her life she devoted most of her time to such as her family and her work. Through these losses, which she thought to be permanent, Piper quickly learned that death is the only uncontested part of her future. At the inception of What Will Become of Me, Piper came to the realization that her work will permanently exist despite the fact that she, eventually, will not. In addition, she will never know when her piece is truly complete: the work is only finished when her ashes are placed next to the jars. Piper’s work compels her to continuously contemplate her future; a process of unsettlement that comes with a burden of exhausting emotional energy.

Due to the periodical nature of What Will Become of Me, Piper’s process includes having her consciously observe the physical changes in her hair from black to gray, from the conception of the work until the present day. As the graying of hair is a common symbol of stress or aging, Piper was able to create a linear timeline of the progression of her life. Deirdre Smith claims that the power of “What Will Become of Me” derives in part from the fact that the items in the jars are witnesses to the events and changes that have shaped Piper’s personal life over the last thirty years.”[x] Unlike artworks that do not use the human body as a medium, Piper’s twelve jars of hair show the artist’s physical development and aging. Once again, thisc ould cause Piper emotional uneasiness, as she is forced to accept she will someday fillherlast jar of hair. Therefore, the work acts as a diary, or intimate record of Piper’s life, in which she connects physical changes to her body to key events she has experiencedor remembers. Her hair and skin become an index of her life, acting as material vessels of her emotions, worries, and changes. 

Furthermore, Piper’s intentional decision to use honey jars reiterates the thickness of both her curly hair and her life, attributing them to thick, sweet honey. Thus, Piper’s creative method is not merely a process of contemplation: What Will Become of Me is an allegory for her life. For Piper, her final product is unique such that it represents and reminds her of important stages of her life and youth. What Will Become of Me comprises work which is symbolic of Piper’s life. As a result, she is unable to break away from emotionality in her art-making process, further complicating Lippard and Chandler’s definition of conceptual art.

Lippard, Chandler, and Lewitt’s interpretations of conceptual art detail a lack of emotional connection in the creation of a work of art, and that the piece ought to be solely mentally-stimulating rather than emotionally appealing to its audience. The title of Piper’s piece uses the future tense (will), alluding to her imminent death. Piper’s signed statement of intent to donate her cremated ashes upon her death implies the unfinished nature of the piece, but also confirms that she is still alive. In that way, What Will Become of Meworks as a self-memorialization of Piper’s life.

To viewers, the work is a strange form of mourning, in which the person they are asked to mourn is someone who is still currently alive. This raises an important concern for the viewer: when should someone be memorialized? Is it possible to pay your respects to someone before they die? Such questions come with an immense emotional burden, which causes the audience to reflect on their own life. Death is a concept all people are forced to unpack and ponder, bringing thoughts of loss, sadness, and frustrations which accompany the inability to comprehend one’s fate. 

As such, I argue that What Will Become of Meconstitutes a ‘difficult’ work. Jennifer Doyle uses ‘difficult’ as a descriptor of artworks that create dense fields of affect and emotional intensity for the viewer; art that “receives little or no institutional support—work that in most contexts is stubbornly uncollectible.”[xi] These issues often result from the work’s engagement with identity and controversy. Piper’s artwork is a collection of parts of her own physical body, transcending the nature of her work being an obsolete piece that holds sacred power. 

Once her remains are donated to the MoMA, the work will be unboundedly connected to Piper’s body and soul, acting as a spiritual site to mourn her death. This elevates What Will Become of Me to a relic, no longer a mere shelf displaying lifeless objects. As the owners of Piper’s remains, the MoMA will face ethical issues handling the work as both a work of art and as a collection of human remains. Smith argues: “The museum will have to negotiate two responsibilities: one to show respect to Piper’s memory in its curatorial and art handling practices, and the other to care for her remains as an object.”[xii] Piper’s chosen medium through which she showcases conceptions of life and death raises new problems for the MoMA as an institution, in which the museum is forced to react to her death: will the piece be renamed What Became of Me when Adrian Piper passes?

This dilemma alone illustrates the inability of categorizing Piper’s remains solely as an object that expresses a concept, as conceptual art is defined by Lewitt. Piper’s chosen medium of hair, skin, and fingernails is too strongly connected to her body and experiences to be considered separate from her emotions, life, and creative processes. Piper blurs the line between artwork, quasi-diary, and memorial in which the nature and progression of the work depends on what point of her life she is currently at. Arguably, as time passes, the object of the work becomes more and more pertinent, quickly becoming both Piper’s memorial site, as well as an emotional experience for viewers of her work. 

The audience of Piper’s piece becomes emotionally activated, as they are forced to consider their own aging, and the aging of those around them. What Will Become of Meis quasi-memorialistic because of the parts of the body Piper has chosen to collect: in the eyes of the viewer, it could be anyone’s hair, skin, and ashes. Depending on one’s relationship with Piper, the viewer might have a very different emotional response, reflecting a layer of Piper’s work that Lippard and Lewitt are unable to address. What Will Become of Mesurpasses common criticism and literature on conceptual art, as exemplifiedby Lippard, Chandler, and Lewitt, defying the emotional boundaries and the obsolescence of the conceptual art object. Piper strategically uses parts of her body to challenge not only definitions of conceptual art, but what constitutes an artistic medium, adding an additional layer to the responsibility of a museum as an institution that commodifies and values art.

[i]Adrian Piper, What Will Become of Me (1985, ongoing), framed text, glass jars, hair, fingernails, and skin, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA.

[ii]“What Will Become of Me,” MoMA(date of last access 2018)

[iii]“What Will Become of Me” (date of last access 2018).

[iv]Deirdre Smith, “Death as Catalysis,” Good Measure3, no. 1 (2016): 6. 

[v]John P. Bowles, Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment(Duke University Press, 2011), 39.

[vi]Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International 12, no. 5 (1968).

[vii]Lippard and Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,”31.

[viii]Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (1967): 79-83. 

[ix]Smith, “Death as Catalysis,” 6.

[x]Smith, “Death as Catalysis,” 10.

[xi]Jennifer Doyle, Hold it Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art(Duke University Press: 2013), 6.

[xii]Smith, “Death as Catalysis,” 7.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *