"The Best Art In The World"
By BANYI HUANG, NOV. 2016
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest opened at the New Museum last month, the most comprehensive New York survey yet covering the thirty-year span of the multi-media artist’s career. Just like the soap bubble machine—a piece entitled Nothing made in 1999—that gently taunts museumgoers with its caressing charm in the ground floor lobby, the show is an immersion in Rist’s hypnotically enveloping vision, a visual, auditory, and sensorial trip into the kaleidoscopic world the artist has cultivated with the body, nature, and most importantly, the complexity of our subjectivities.
Working through the exhibition comprised of 24 works, spread out over three floors, one experiences the variety and transmogrification of Rist’s practice, as well as the technical evolution of her usage of video, the predominant medium in her oeuvre. One aspect that recent profiles on the exhibition emphasizes on is openness and accessibility: “I think it’s the most important job of the artist: to try not to just reach the converted”, said the Swiss artist with Randy Kennedy, in a New York Times preview.
Rist’s indebtedness to the non-converted realm of mass culture, particularly popular music and female representation, can be gleaned from early single-channel works on view. In I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), Rist’s entry ticket into the art world, she flails about in both a mesmerizing and manic manner to a distorted soundtrack made after Lennon and McCartney’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, her exposed breasts bouncing along to her jerky yet sensual movements. “An exorcist dance”, she calls it. Supposedly, Rist submitted the piece to a Swiss film festival only in hopes of gaining a free ticket.
While I’m Not the Girl strikes a resemblance with the DIY aesthetics of YouTube videos, Pickelporno (1992) employs the fisheye view—an experimental strategy of early MTV—to bring forth the feverish state of lovemaking: a hand tracing over grass-covered genitals, a bulbous nipple, flaming lava. It is a decentralized, alternative way of being.
Talking with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Rist said of her intimate relationship to pop culture: “in my village in Switzerland I had a small window on the art world through the mass media; through John Lennon/Yoko Ono I moved from pop music to contemporary art.” Her identification with the innovative spirit of MTV reveals the ever-widening gap between conceptual art and the general audience. For her, the raison d'être of an artwork is to make the viewer identify movements and space, to mark out trajectories of social-cultural forces that string us up like puppets, and to carve out possibilities of alternative movements, commented Rist in a taped interview with Christian Lund.
Since the show opened, there has been much talk invoking Beyoncé’s blatant act of ripping off a scene from Rist’s Ever is Over All (1997), where a woman sporting a flowy blue dress casually strolls down the street, only to smilingly smash car windows with a flower-shaped hammer. Claims to authenticity aside, what is more striking is that in walking an ambiguous line, Rist refrains from falling into the moralizing trap of self-righteous feminism, as in Beyonce’s vengeful baseball bat.
Artnet’s Ben Davis writes that Rist’s universe—a “land of the feminine”—is “non-judgmental”. In response to Nancy Spector’s interpretation that I’m Not the Girl is a satire on the commodification of eroticism, Rist replies with an air of nonchalance, that her interest lies not in depicting “women who behave as they should”, but rather in showing proud and playful ways of dealing with bodies. Her instrument of violence, along with didactic transgression, dissipates into a juxtaposed field of colorful blooms.
Video works made in the 80s and 90s are mostly displayed in two rows of triangular-shaped viewing booths, the self-enclosed spaces of which draw attention to the act of viewing: the voyeuristic participation in something illicit, the self-conscious tumble into psychedelic rabbit holes. Stepping inside, one is pressed up against works like When My Mother’s Brother Was Born It Smelled Like Pear Blossom in Front of the Brown-Burnt Sill, partaking in an mise-en-abyme of a baby being taken out of a mother’s warm yet repulsive womb, encased within a crystalline glacial landscape.
In comparison, Rist’s work in the last decade has become “more immersive with greater fluidity and lyricism…a negotiation with form and timing”, to use Phong Bui’s words. Large-scale installations in this exhibition, including Mercy Garden, Pixel Forest, and 4th Floor to Madness, seem to be a continuous development of Pour Your Body Out, a work Rist had shown at MoMA’s Atrium Space in 2008. These site-specific immersive environments often take on the form of projections that spill out of restrictive rectangular frames, onto the floor, billowy fabrics, and even the face of a fellow viewer; comfortable seating arrangements, such as carpets and beanbags, that encourage the audience to sit back, relax, and release their bodies in a space of shared intimacy, reciprocating the eroticism of depicted subjects; lulling soundtracks that dissolve the otherwise self-contained territory of each exhibited work.
On the question of how Pour Your Body Out came to be produced, Rist explained that MoMA’s atrium reminded her of the interior of a church, trapped in a moral-spatial dichotomy between the ascending spirit, and the body weighed down with its materiality and Christian guilt. Hence these installations are a way of bridging those differences that dominate Western thought.
The symmetrical projection in Sip My Ocean, for instance, doubles, fragments, and defamiliarizes the artist’s swimming body, in such a way that legs, seaweed, and anemones of the ocean floor all meld into a generous and expansive vulvic form. Where psychoanalysts once read as the “void” and the embodiment of castration anxiety, is precisely where everything is effectively born, the line of symmetry constituting a generative mechanism. “We all come out from between our mother's legs. From there that we first see the light of the world", said the artist in an interview with the Guardian.
Giving in to the artist’s seductive wailings, one is led through layers of ethereal drapery, whereupon flocks of sheep are projected, as though deposited in a dreamy trance. In Suburb Brain (1999), a miniature model of a suburban housing complex, a tiny video is projected onto one of the facades, seen in conjunction with a bigger video-within-video on the back wall. Nostalgic memory of a family celebration, when juxtaposed with moving silhouettes of a drive-by, an adolescent glance, a vague murmur, is a window onto the fleeting passage of time.
The presentation of time and rhythm, highly personalized experiences in themselves, plays a significant role for Rist. “Slow motions and circles have to do with paying honor to something, paying tribute or glorifying them”, specified the artist in “Psychedelic, Baby”, an interview with Jane Harris. Perhaps the notion of edging, the sexual technique in which one maintains arousal in infinitely approaching a climatic release, could be used as a metaphor in connecting the body, desire, and pleasure, obvious yet evasive terms in Rist’s practice. The attainment of cathartic release is precisely the end of it; the prolongation of circular and zigzagging processes offers a way out of instantaneous gratification, in a culture dominated by Tinder and commercial porn.
In fact, the entire show is about a process of slowing down—the championing of multiplicity, instead of the repressive force of the singular and the didactic underpinnings of dualities.
The center piece that the exhibition is titled after, Pixel Forest, is a massive-scale installation that completely transforms the third-floor space. Made up of 3000 hanging LED lights, each bulb made to resemble bodily organs pulsate and change color, harmonizing with images on screen. While the work is an overt reference to the over-saturation of image pixels in our contemporary digital culture, it is also an act to embrace and inhabit that virtual jungle of intoxicating mutability, a counterbalance to the spectatorial consumption of commercial images. At once magical and mundane, the pulsing organisms unveil the rest of the bodily wonderland on this floor: a quirky chandelier of underpants, Mercy Garden—a microcosm of botanical sensuality.
In 4th Floor To Mildness, the culminating point of the show, underwater imagery are mapped onto two large amorphous screens hanging from the ceiling. As visitors curl up in communal beds, trails of bubbles, dirty bits of mosses, and seeping sunlight softly wash over them. The footages, having been shot in the Rhine where Rist used to swim as a child, reformulate highly personalized experiences. Incidentally, the most overwhelming sensation can perhaps be encapsulated by super close-up shots of wrinkled fingers and toes, to which we, as children, must have recoiled in both disgust and wonder: shriveled up like prunes, they reveal a flash-forward to the image of death. However, in a typical dialectic fashion, Rist pointed out to Massimiliano Gioni, director of the New Museum: “when things rot, they become the humus that things grow from, so it’s not so bad.”
“In German, leiben means ‘to embody. So ‘love’ in German is linked with body. ‘I body you’ is ‘I love you.’”, such is the central preoccupation of the artist. The New Museum exhibition shows the way in which the embrace of the body figures in the relationship of mother-child, lover-lover, nature-human, and even past-present; to edge on closer is to render homage to each step of the process.
“Help Me”, cries out a small neon sign on the adjacent wall, is a brilliant touch ending the show. Nobody can help you from falling in love. Nobody can save you from yourself. WM
Banyi Huang is a writer and artist based in New York. She is currently pursuing an MA in modern and contemporary art at Columbia University.view all articles from this author