The Catalysis Series – Adrian Piper’s Intriguing Artistic Activism
By Tanya Singh

Adrian Piper, an American conceptual artist brought the common scientific phenomenon of catalysis – the process of accelerating a chemical reaction – into real life with her Catalysis Series, which began with Catalysis I in 1970 and ended with Catalysis VII in 1973. In this set of seven performance works, she used her own actions as a catalyst to invoke immediate and often negative reactions from the unsuspecting audience. The performances involved the artist behaving in an unusual and sometimes appalling manner while going on with her daily life to investigate how her actions affected her surrounding spectators.

Piper is known for works that challenge the relationship between the artist and the audience. This particular series also deals with the same concept while also questioning the relevance of public conduct and identity constructions. By merging the boundaries between art and life, the artist expands a performance into a political concern and establishes a thought-provoking and profound work of conceptual art. The Catalysis Series is not only Piper’s most significant work but also one of the most intriguing examples of artistic activism.

Catalysis I

Adrian Piper’s works are about taking risks and challenging herself as an artist. She dives right into the concept without any hesitation or self-doubt. She did just that for her first performance of the Catalysis Series too. She soaked her clothes in a mixture of vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod-liver oil for a week. She then wore these on a public train in the evening. There is nothing else that could provoke more reactions from surrounding people than wearing the nasty smell of vinegar on a public train during rush hours.

Catalysis II

Essentially a recording of the artist whistling along a piece by Bach, the German composer, the second performance was a much subdued version of a commentary on social behavior and norms.

Catalysis III

The third performance included a shopping trip to Macy’s, a departmental store. The artist wore clothing that had previously been painted with sticky white emulsion paint. The front of her shirt read “WET PAINT”. Just like a park bench marked with the same warning, she became a thing of curiosity. Anyone witnessing a similar scenario would be intrigued to know whether the paint was actually wet. They would want to touch her, but would not do so in fear of doing something that might perhaps have been offensive in a ‘normal’ situation.

Catalysis IV

Carried out in 1971, the seventh piece involved Piper going into public places and taking public transport with a mouthful, literally! She had stuffed a white bath towel on the sides of her mouth with the other end hanging out in front of her. With this defiance of proper public conduct, she was coercing her audience to shun or scorn her behavior.

Catalysis V

Libraries require a certain social conduct. Naturally, one of Piper’s performances was staged at the Donnell Library, New York. The artist had recorded herself making belches at five-minute intervals previously. For the performance, she hid the tape recorder on her and carried on her usual research, reading and searching for books, while it loudly played in the background.

Catalysis VI

Possibly the piece that attracted the most attention, Catalysis VI involved some helium-filled Mickey Mouse balloons. The artist walked around Central Park in New York with these tied to her ears, her teeth as well as her hair. As compared to the rest of the performances, this was also the most theatrical one.

Catalysis VII

For the last performance, Piper demonstrated the same courage and audacity as her very first work of the series. She actually played the role of a viewer and the viewed simultaneously at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York. While experiencing the art, she chewed on large amounts of chewing gum, blew up large balloons and let the remnants of the gum remain on her face. Possibly the most interesting out of the lot, this work not only challenged social norms but also the roles of the artist as well as the viewer.

Image Courtesy: Generali Foundation
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