January 2009, Pipilotti Rist @ Museum of Modern Art
Pipilotti Rist. Still from Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters). 2008. Multichannel video projection. Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Hauser & Wirth Zurich London. copyright 2008 Pipilotti Rist.
When I first happened on an exhibit of Pipilotti Rist’s work—in August 1998, in Vienna—I was enchanted. “Remake of the Weekend” (the Austrian version) converted the Kunsthalle Wien into a magical world. I remember a darkened room with videos, colored lights, trees. I was falling in love and the wonder of the show mingled with the wonder of my emotional life. I was transfixed by the videos as well as the totality of the environment, carefully controlled so that it became the exhibition. There were no rooms as containers, only environments to be experienced; the rooms were completely transfigured by the installation.
This impression was repeated in the following years in Luhring Augustine, the name on the door outside Pipilotti Rist’s temporary New York worlds, and currently at the Museum of Modern Art. The dedication to detail choreographs the experience while leaving participation open: the flow of movement through the space is variable and controlled by the viewer. The viewer does not merely look at but enters the piece, becomes part of it. Options are available in a variety of videos, multiple perspectives, and different orders of looking.
At MoMA, the installation takes over the second floor atrium—7354 cubic meters in size—with dark pink velvet curtains closing off the entry and the observation bridges on the floors above. The viewer can move through the space, sit, stand, lie down, choose which of the three wall projections to look at, or, as I did, situate herself so that all are visible at once. A choice still has to be made, but all perspectives are available. The three video perspectives are generally connected: at times repeating each other, at others offering alternative perspectives of the same events, and at others, the action is related. The presentation is just the right length to sit through several loops and leave still captivated.
The installation is minimal: a donut-shaped sofa invites the viewer to become comfortable and dwell in the installation. A sign at the entry asks:
“Please remove your shoes before stepping on to the white carpet or sitting on the sofa & please make new friends at the Museum.”
As with Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time” piece at P.S. 1 where the audience happily lay on the floor to watch the mirrored ceiling revolve, the audience becomes very comfortable. With bodies relaxed and receptive and sensory experience of the outside world bracketed out, we submit to this temporary world.
Themes and motifs recur throughout Rist’s works and are met like old friends: intense pinks and reds—representing love, passion, Eros; tulips; young women experiencing a kind of primordial abandon; suggestions of the mysteries of nature. The installation presents a kind of child’s way of meeting the world: visceral, with child-like thoughts and feelings, hands plunging in the dirt, the perspective of the big world to our small selves. The sensuality of the women in the videos is suggested to us through slowed action that demands consideration, through raw colors, through uninhibited movements and ecstatic expressions. WE have only vision, have to imagine the feel of the earth, the softness of the petals on the tongue, the taste of the apple, the caress of the water. Like the odors and the tactility of the events, the sound of the filmed events as well as of the museum are also filtered out, replaced by a humming trance-like soundtrack. The auditory experience alone is a pleasant one. We sensually, consensually submit to the environment, blend with our surroundings.
In the installation, we encounter nature as a material part of it: fingers in the mud, chewing an apple, floating in the water, mouth full of petals, smoothing the dirt off an earthworm and carefully arranging it on a torso. We are nature, we are reminded, as well as culture, by the wheel rolling through the garden, the feet strolling through puddles of flattened refuse, blood flowing in the water, as much as the girl rolling in the grass.
As participants, as when looking at any visual work, our bodies are passive while our senses are engaged. The audience is connected sensuously and intellectually to the work, and is free to consider further connections, to nature, to the environment that we inhabit. Though we are lifted out of the environment of the museum and the city and placed in the environment of “Pour Your Body Out,” it is one more artificial environment that we encounter daily. It is pared down, controlled and directed so that we experience only the motifs and scenes that are offered to us. We also experience the crowd as it moves through the space. “Awesome!” I heard one viewer say. “Be better if no one was here!” Did that include him?
Rist directs the viewer’s aesthetic experience. She calls for the experience of the viewer to bring their body into the museum, into the piece, into a new environment. The viewer must step out of the streets, out of ordinary existence, and open themselves to something that does not fit. The aesthetic experience is also a phenomenological experience,a meditation on the senses and sensory experience. A world is opened up to us in which we are invited to lower our defenses and bracket out our preconceptions and welcome alternative experiences of the world. The world is rarefied, we are offered sensations that we can only witness visually, but which we can taste imaginatively. We move through a field of tulips, not in a usual manner where we might walk around a field or between the rows, gazing down into their bright cups at their black-stamened centers. Instead, we have become the size of one of the worms crawling among them, looking up at their towering stems thick as saplings. We swim like fish through a pond under translucent water plants, looking through the surface of the water with its strange bright light, marveling at the white birches wavering in the ripples.
Though our perception is riveted on vision, we contemplate tactile perception. Much of our perspective is ground-level or below, a position we seldom, if ever, hold in reality. We watch bare feet walking through puddles and feel the water on our soles, our toes. As visual perception is opened up, experiences are recalled that are less mediated by convention and habit. Childhood sensations are recalled, playing in the rain, digging in the earth, when everything we encountered was new and wonderful, when we learned by touching, by taking things into our bodies. This is not to suggest idyllic or idealized experiences, but experiences unmediated by cultural demands for cleanliness and safety that require the wearing of shoes to protect the feet and the need to keep clean, by the rejection of sensations that we might no longer consider pleasant--dirt under the fingernails, the feel of an earthworm—or by taboos against nudity and sexuality.
Aesthetic experience, Schiller tells us, enhances the art of living, particularly through play. Freedom is expressed in play as the ordinary is suspended, allowing for harmonic integration of the work of art. The aesthetic struggle for integration can serve as a model for the integration we seek in our lives, that is, the balancing of the sensuous and the rational. A strong sense of play pervades Rist’s work—I cannot help but think of “Ever Is Over All” (1997) in which a young woman walks down the street with a long-stemmed red flower, laughing as she smashes the windows of parked cars with it. A dark theme of violence and revenge to be sure, but it is a bright day, the colors are rich and intense, including the red shoes of the joyous woman, who is utterly in command of her world. A policewoman, witnessing the smash-and-stroll, smiles and tips her hat to the young woman in implicit and complicit understanding.
“Pour Your Body Out” is enriched by this same life-affirming Eros. As the installation invites and encourages an opening of perception to the world through new perspectives on what could also be viewed as rather mundane experiences, epic only in their representation, these perspectives are met with a sense of play, a relaxing of the ordinary, of convention and preconceived ideas. Memory and imagination are both excised and rejuvenated through a selective awakening. Though dominated by play and joyousness, the experience Rist offers in her video installations is multiply layered with ideas that require multiple viewings to try to unpack and absorb. Even without fully unlocking her code of symbolism—would that even be possible?—one can integrate an affirmation of the experience of the pleasure and pain of living.
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.
Stephanie Damoff is a writer in NYC. firstname.lastname@example.org