As artist Pipilotti Rist spoke to a group of journalists last week, soap bubbles floated out of a silver machine and promptly disappeared in a puff of smoke, as part of a 1999 sculptural piece playfully entitled “Nothing.”
“Thank you for your work, being a bridge to the possible audience, being a translator,” she told us. With that bit of kindness, plus a brief statement in support of letting refugees in, we were ushered into Pixel Forest, the three-floor survey of Rist’s video and sculptural work that is equal parts manically psychedelic, serenely meditative, and highly accessible.
Despite the exhibition’s massive scale, Rist’s work is as welcoming as her demeanor. At the same time, you could also call it alienating. The familiar feel of a fine art space vanishes once you step off the elevator into the museum’s second floor, made unrecognizable by a kaleidoscopic and seemingly never-ending installation of fabric, video, and color. The most impressive element is also the most simple: white strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling with videos projected onto them.
Rather than being contained to the fabric, the media leaks onto the walls and the bodies and the floors, constantly shifting as flesh turns to strawberry turns to rose-colored nipple, to the point of making it unclear what is a visitor and what is part of the work. As people raised their arms to take photos, their arms became six arms enveloped in a swirl of color or a flock of Super 8 sheep, while the strains of soft guitar notes and singing were heard. Everything felt alive and breathing.
Rist undoubtedly reached the largest population of “unconverted” with her work when Beyoncé very closely referenced Rist’s 1997 piece Ever Is Over All in her video for Hold Up, off her celebrated video album Lemonade. In both works, a headstrong woman strolls down the sidewalk in a dress, smashing the windows of a parked car with a slender blunt object. A Slate piece posits that this avant-garde reference makes Beyoncé “one of the most daring mainstream visual artists of our time,” while others said the pop star was just stealing. Millions of people watched this music video, but without the Swiss artist being credited, is she truly reaching anyone at all? Perhaps in a way with her work, but not with her name.
While Pipilotti Rist’s name may go unspoken by mainstream pop consumers, she has still undoubtedly made strides. In a time where men still dominate art shows and curatorial efforts alike, it’s a bit of a magnificent act for one woman to take up three entire floors of a major museum. Not only that, but Rist explained in her opening remarks that the show is “a complete female production, from the electronic boards to the whole concept to the whole programming,” and that the team that made it happen was 80% female.
Though Rist dabbles in other mediums, it’s clear from this exhibition that video is her love. There are even peeks of it among a gloriously tiny 3D model of a house, complete with streetlights, a swimming pool, and traffic cones. The house is aglow not with a fireplace but with an orange screen of sorts, and so on. The hardware making it all happen also gets a place in this world, with the projector and speakers placed close enough to the 3D models that they feel like a rightful part of the town.
In this vibrant alien world, there’s a continual emphasis on coming in and staying a while. It’s similar to the inevitability of a drug trip: it may be confusing or startling, but just lie back and let it happen. So you can do just that, there are large colorful carpets along with pillows next to videos that take up entire walls. Even the most buttoned-up people alongside me lay down and let themselves become one with the work.
Rist takes this to another level on the final floor of her exhibition with 4th Floor To Mildness, a newly-made video installation cleanly mapped onto large “amorphous screens” hanging from the ceiling. In the dim light, you (and a companion) can curl up in one of the dozens of beds of all shapes and sizes and let it wash over you. Just don’t forget to remove your shoes first.
In other sections, Rist welcomes viewers to secrets. A row of futuristic triangle-shaped viewing booths resemble the illicit corners of old DVD shops, the sort where you go to take in something seedy. When you step inside the booth, you’re surrounded by buzzy sound and are face-to-face with the glow of a screen showing Rist’s older works. Sexy Sad I (1987) is a distorted Technicolor-feeling romp mostly consisting of a naked man frolicking through a forest. It’s made slow and trippy at times, and accompanied by Rist’s version of The Beatles’s “Sexy Sadie.” Walking by these booths, you can see and hear small slivers as a voyeur, but the true experience is to be found inside.
The actual Pixel Forest, the show’s namesake, is a vivid jungle of 3,000 hanging LED lights, looking quite like a mass order of large-scale illuminated Christmas lights or a zoomed-in biology project. You’re able to make your way through them as they pulse and change color. Once you’ve done so, you’re once again looking at something familiar and welcoming, yet totally fantastical: another full wall of vibrant video, with another comfy rug and pillows. What may have been alien on the second floor becomes comforting here, as Rist’s world is now the norm.
The warmth Rist exhibits extends beyond just her work and the earlier press conference; a recent New York Times profile on the show states she “politely interrupted a morning planning meeting” to ensure the journalist learned the names of the many people helping her install the show. Such a gesture shows that despite the show being about her, she knows such an exhibit cannot happen without the work of many.
The Times profile also reveals her philosophies around the role of the artist. “I think it’s the most important job of the artist: to try not to just reach the converted,” she reveals. This further explains her welcoming of journalists as translators; they are one more group of people with the potential to expose her work to fresh eyes that exist beyond the gilded bubble that is the art world.
Looking through my photos of the installation, it struck me how much the colors and billowing fabrics resembled Whirl-y-Gig, a long-running London-based rave I sleeplessly attended from start to finish several years ago. Near the end of the night, a massive parachute descended softly upon the partiers and they were all gathered together, no longer dancing but huddled together on the ground, sharing a moment of calm. In that moment, the night did not feel like a wild party. And in this moment, the gallery did not feel like an art museum. It merely felt peaceful and free.
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest is on view through January 15 at New Museum. On January 19 at 7 pm, Rist will be appearing in conversation with the museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni.