On ViewThe New Museum
October 26, 2016 – January 1, 2017
In the midst of the political tide of darkness that has submerged the country, the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest retrospective at the New Museum is a much-needed gasp for oxygen. Set up as an invitation to careen through a parallel dimension populated with immersive video installations that each offer a journey into the depths of the human psyche, the exhibition reads as a personal manifesto on themes like technology, gender, sexuality, and the sacredness of the female body—the latter a theme that is more apropos and urgent than ever before. Epicurean par excellence, Rist’s work over the past three decades has celebrated nature, desire, and pleasure through sound and distinct interactions of light with space.
In a 2011 video interview with Adrian Searle from the Guardian, talking about her exhibition Eyeball Massage at Hayward Gallery, Rist says (as a woman projected across the walls is seen eating a tulip to cleanse herself from all the synthetic products we manufacture to maintain good hygiene, at the expense of a compromised planet): “I try to stay positive that humans will correct their mistakes.” That statement could easily be the main take away of the artist’s works. Born in 1962 and raised in a country that only granted women the right to vote in 1971, Rist’s work is first and foremost resoundingly feminist.
In Pipilotti Rist’s world, art is lived both as an individual and collective experience; single-channel videos are set up inside individual booths while other multi-channel videos are projected on walls that multiple viewers can experience at the same time. Her earliest work, I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986), a five-minute single-channel video of Rist dancing in her studio in a low-cut dress that plays in a booth on the second floor, was made while she was still a student at the School of Design in Basel and ended up setting the tone of her career. Its audio, a gleeful adaption of The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” sung by the artist, appropriates the lyrics “she’s not the girl who misses much” by using the first person, modifying her own voice to a squeak. The subversion of a song track that was itself originally subverting a cover of The American Rifleman magazine, manages to completely dismantle the original message from a chilling invitation to violence to an empowering mantra for women.
In the same vein, Ever Is Over All (1997), one of Rist’s best known works and installations, overlaps footage of a woman striding down the street, joyfully smashing car windows with a long-stemmed flower, fading and colliding into footage of fields of red flowers serenely swaying in the wind. Emanating within the room is a female voice calmly humming as birds sing in the background, occasionally interrupted by the sound of smashing glass. It is precisely this constant collision of contradictions, of hot and cold tones, of eerie and peaceful experience, that characterizes Rist’s oeuvre.
The ’90s saw the flourishing of Rist’s practice. It’s hard to miss Pickelporno (1992), which imagines a porn clip that would cater to a woman’s fantasy. Considering that the porn industry was built around men’s desire and fantasies, Rist’s video reads almost as a taunt. The piece demands the acknowledgement of a woman’s sexual needs in a visual rendition that is both humorous and ironic. The same could be said about Open My Glade (2000), a nine-minute video where a woman can be seen flattening her face against a glass surface of sorts. The inherent eroticism found in much of the artist’s work is more than just a signature. It is practically the cornerstone of her practice.
A more recent work, Pixelwald (Pixel Forest) (2016), a hanging LED-light installation of amorphous sculptures that dangle from the ceiling, offers rather a quiet moment of bewilderment. As colors transition from purples to blues to reds, one is tempted to gaze for hours at the silent installation bursting with life.
The fourth and final floor of the exhibition concludes with a moment of tranquility after the sensory rhapsodies on floors below. 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), specially commissioned by the New Museum, stages an unassuming white neon sign reading “Trust Me” as an invitation to push through its black curtain. Past the textile divide are over a dozen beds dispersed under amorphous screens hanging from the ceiling. They play four different videos, one of which features a woman floating under water, her skin shriveled, nipples hardened, but eyes wide open. She merges with the aquatic flora, in a scene that is evocative of a fetus in utero. Music by Soap&Skin and Anja Plaschg is heard, and as the viewers look up from where they lie, they dream with their eyes open.
To see Pipilotti Rist’s show is to live it. It means to surrender to the hypnotic colors and flashing from the many projections saturating the space, and experience the marriage of light and architecture as videos land on walls and surfaces in cathartic splashes of otherworldly sounds and visuals. Rist’s work sits at the confluence of sensory excitation and a stoic meditation on the world that surrounds us. Within the New Museum, each floor becomes a universe of its own, and within it, each piece, a celestial body.