Entering the three-floor exhibition currently on view at the New Museum, everything immediately slows down. The lights are dim, colorful projections hitting almost every wall and surface, illuminating people and subsequently turning them into shadows. Some visitors sit, splayed out on a plush carpet to watch the wall-to-wall two-channel video projections, while others drift through flowing gauzy curtains, a soft warbling tune flooding the air. This digital playground is Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest, the first major retrospective of the Swiss artist, featuring works spanning her thirty-year career, all of which invite you to play, to see, to touch, to take off your shoes and stay a while.
And the result is something like magic. Museum goers have the opportunity to place themselves as a subject in Rist’s videos, with settings like Looking Through Pixel Forest (2016), a blinking and pulsating light installation, which transports you to a world filled with waves of emotive color. In an interview with curator Massimiliano Gioni in the show’s catalogue, Rist says that her video installations now “dematerialize ceilings and walls, opening them up, liquefying them with images.” In turn, they liquefy the space between the viewer and the work itself, calling on the viewer instead to be a participant, an actor in her own experience.
Pipilotti Rist, Mercy Garden (still), 2014, Two-channel video and sound installation, color, with carpet and sheepskin; 10:30 min, Dimensions variable. Sound by Heinz Rohrer. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine
But with screens exploded and fractured and re-directed, with the installation almost consuming the content itself, what do we as viewers take from these videos? Is there a more subversive message to be gleaned? Or do these elaborate installations essentially break down to formal experimentations in the possibilities of digital art? The reality is that this exhibition operates in multiple registers. It is egalitarian in its openness and ability to offer such delight, yet challenging in the subtle ways the works contradict standards of power, offering up a particular brand of technicolored feminism.
Early works like I’m Not a Girl Who Misses Much (1986) and Ever Over All (1997) perfectly encapsulate a feminist agenda, yet resist the didacticism of many of her predecessors. Rather in these works, we see a kind of maniacal energy and destruction, of a girl and her environment, in a way that is humorous and shocking at the same time. In Ever Over All, for example, Rist walks down a city street smashing car windows with a cast iron “Redhot Poker” flower—alluding to the final scene, which ends on a vista filled with the tropical flower. This feeling carries through to the single- and double-channel videos throughout the show. We see flashes of bodies amidst natural vistas and underwater worlds, a breast or mouth coming into view before the image is choked out by weeds or a burst of colorful patterns. Rist is asserting agency over bodies, worlds, the natural and suburban realms. In Vorstadthirn (Suburban Brain) (1999), she’s built a diorama of any or every town, urging us to see how small it really is. She is transporting us to a different dimension, one where women can construct worlds as easily as break them down.
Pipilotti Rist, Ever is Over All, 1997 (still), Two-channel video and sound installation, color, with carpet; 4:07 min, Dimensions variable. Sound by Anders Guggisberg and Rist. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine
Although many of these individual works contain this message, the spectacle of the installation blurs how we are able to view the show on a whole. For instance, one can focus on the show’s social aspect, watching other museum-goers experience the installation through their own virtual means, capturing digital memorabilia in the form of iPhone pictures and videos to be shared long after the physical experience is over. Or one can try and block out the others in order to immerse herself in the architecture of the installation, following Rist’s proposal and becoming an actor in the exhibition itself. Or one can simply grab a beanbag, and watch the videos play through their 5–15 minute loops, consuming passively but attentively.
Pipilotti Rist, Gnade Donau Gnade (Mercy Danube Mercy), 2013/15. Installation view: Komm Schatz, wir stellen die Medien um & fangen nochmals von vorne an, Kunsthalle Krems, Austria, 2015. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine. Photo: Lisa Rastl
But there is another side to the installations, one that moves away from the communal spectacle by fomenting unrest in the digital utopia you think you’ve entered. These more solitary viewing experiences take the form of tiny iPhone screens buried in corners, playing single-channel videos that you almost have to crouch down to see. Or in a row of shard-like viewing stations mounted on either side of the long, narrow gallery on the second floor, each angular box [at right] fitted with a hole at the bottom allowing only one viewer access at a time. Looking down the exhibition space, this scene is as much a performance as the videos themselves, with people plugged into their stations, protected, yet strangely exposed. When you plunge into this confined space, you are consumed by the video and the music playing in your individual box; everything else dissipates.
In stark contrast to the communal installations, these boxes produce a sort of ostrich effect, asking us to bury our heads in the sand and give in to the escapist aspects of entertainment, forcing us to close off from the world. It can be a disturbing scene—all those bodies with heads in the sharp, menacing viewing stations could easily be replaced with a subway full of people all plugged into their headphones, unaware of the world going on outside of themselves. Perhaps this is Rist’s own little warning to us. She says to Gioni later on in their interview that “I believe in the technological sublime. And the potential for terror has been a part of the sentiment of the sublime since back in the days of Romantic painting.” In striving towards this new concept of the technological sublime through rapturous nature-inspired videos rendered as exploded projections, she is also revealing the terrifying reality of digital entertainment: that it can consume and distract us as much as set us free. But if we are sick with technology, perhaps the technological sublime is just the cure—as Rist says, “like with a homeopathic remedy, for you to heal, you need the same thing that makes you crazy.”
Pipiloti Rist, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (still), 1986, Single-channel video, sound, color; 7:42 min. Sound by Rist after “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” (1968) by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Courtesy the artist, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York, videoart.ch, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine
In the final installation of the show, 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), an underwater scene plays out on two amorphously shaped screens on the ceiling. I lie down on the beds set up beneath the projection, immediately settling into a kind of comfortable discomfort, allowing myself to feel at ease in this public, yet intimate space. The music calms, the waves of water and color and faces wash in and out of view. I never want to leave, I think, I could lie here forever listening to ethereal tunes and staring off at otherworldly visions. That is until a clot of dirt is thrown in the lens, reminding me of where I am, forcing me to pay attention.
Olivia Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in various publications both in print and online, including L'Officiel Magazine, Freunde Von Freunden, Whitehot, Riot of Perfume, doingbird, and Whitewall Magazine.
(Image on right: Photo: Olivia B. Murphy. Image at top: Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016. Installation view: Pipilotti Rist: Dein Speichel ist mein Taucheranzug im Ozean des Schmerzes [Your Saliva is my Diving Suit in the Ocean of Pain], Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland, 2016. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine. Photo: Lena Huber)