Beyonce has Pipilotti Rist to thank this year for the image of her striding down a street jubilantly smashing car windows with a baseball bat in the video for Hold Up. The sequence is drawn from Rist’s 1997 video Ever Is Over All, made when the Swiss artist was 35 (the same age Beyonce is now), in which a woman does the same with a plastic flower while a policewoman looks on approvingly. Seen from the vantage point of the present in this 3-floor retrospective at the New Museum, Rist’s work is disarmingly timeless. It speaks to the culture we inhabit, where references swim between genres through the media, bodies and genders are on the line and immersion is key.
Rist’s other works stand up equally well to the present moment. In Mutaflor (1996), Rist wheels about, naked, on the floor while the camera lens zooms into her mouth and out again from her anus. This work is apt for body politics, selfie culture and exposure and sexual expression. It is also a short video projected at our feet, thus contending with the stereotype of video art as a “difficult” (read ‘boring’) medium, both inside the art circle and for the public. Similarly enduring (though it was better installed at MoMA PS1 directly into the floorboards than here, where it plays from an iPhone on the floor), is the strange 6 minute video Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath of Lava) (1994), in which Rist, again naked, reaches and shouts incomprehensively up to the viewer against a backdrop of digital flames. These idiosyncratic yet confident early works possess a sense of narrative and of an interior world being offered out.
In Rist’s installations as a mature artist, that possible story has been absorbed by a realm of pure sensation. Projections swim on the ceiling, cover whole walls or are cast onto translucent drapes, bathing viewers in oversize footage with oddball, psychotropic soundtracks (Soap&Skin—the musician Anja Plaschg—is Rist’s frequent collaborator). At the New Museum, the giant new installation 4th Floor to Mildness epitomizes Rist-world. Visitors lie on beds looking up towards a pair of huge wavy-edged panels (not unlike abstracted water lilies), over which plays a close-up video of underwater scenery replete with swaying, slimy leaves, puffs of algae, silt and other subaquatic stuff, crystal water through which light filters from the near-surface and, occasionally, pale fingertips or a passing nipple. Just as in Mercy Garden (2014) on the third floor and Administrating Eternity (2011) on the second, one has the sense of being received into an environment that is perfectly balanced for the purpose.
Rist’s great popular achievement is this pervasive balance, this seductive sensorial pitch; her outlook is infused with ecumenism. Always skirting the pitfall of spectacle, her work conveys respect for the muculent majesty of the natural world, a humble awe made clear by her love of colour and a vibrantly intelligent sense of humour. Rather than traditional screens confronting the viewer in a black box dialectic, her setups find equal potential in the ceiling, floor and empty volume of a room. One of her expressed aims is for the viewer and image to be on the same level, to “feel like one.” This desire is what makes Rist so prescient and her work so inviting, instinctively grasping a context in which attention is constantly sucked in and spliced between different focal points by all-pervasive media.
Met with so much positive attention for her big installations, Rist thinks her best work is I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, also part of the current retrospective. In this blurred, glitchy student video (made while she was studying in Basel in 1986), Rist dances erratically in a wig and low cut black dress that her breasts mostly spill out of while a squeaky voice sings the first line from The Beatles song Happiness Is a Warm Gun —”I’m not the girl who misses much”—over and over. It’s a video sparked with powerful feminism, mania and pathos, and while her work has grown increasingly popular, Rist has also suggested it has “replaced” her individual personality, coming to represent her entirely. As if mirroring the current condition of human culture, she has been absorbed by media of her own making.
For its innate equality, social fluency and sheer, zeitgeist-ready temptation, then, Pipilotti Rist’s work has universal appeal. Critics over the years have rehearsed the same adjectives: “immersive”, “kaleidoscopic”, “mesmerizing”—almost as if it would be difficult (or dreary) to break the cycle. But while Rist’s oeuvre appears uniquely open and visible on the surface, it contains an element of hiding in plain sight: where is Rist herself, and where are we as individuals in this immersive media world mimicking our own? These are works that signal the real ambiguity at the heart of contemporary experience, if we choose to look for it.