I admit that I’m late to discovering Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. However, given that she has been producing work since the 1980s, and only in 2016 has received her first major retrospective in New York, Pixel Forest at the New Museum, I may not be the only one. The exhibition as a whole is an immersive environment, where one can easily and pleasurably lose time—an attitude that fits Rist’s individual works.
Ever Is Over All (1997) first reeled me in—a video vignette that received extra pop-culture attention this year when one of Beyoncé’s music videos from Lemonade cited it. In Rist’s video, a White woman wears a light blue dress and red pumps. She grins euphorically as she struts down a sidewalk, carrying a cast-metal replica of a flower. She repeatedly swings the flower into the windows of parked cars, glowing all the while. A White female police officer passes her and nods approvingly. In this utopian wonderland, a (White) woman is free to move about public space as she pleases, with an expression of what might be a gesture of female rage. It’s a mixed bag (which Beyoncé’s video emphasizes): Are we expected to smile through the pain? Is our anger only acceptable when it is aesthetically pleasing?
Throughout the four floors, Rist’s recurring themes of gender, nature, and human bodies emerge through differing strategies in video and multimedia installations. Rist’s tactic of spatially manipulating the viewing experience repeats throughout. For example, a collection of Rist’s video pieces is viewable only by inserting one’s head into triangular boxes that protrude from the walls. There is no disembodied viewing here, as viewers must feel themselves move in order to watch.
Any initial discomfort quickly turns to seduction. In one corner of a darkened room, two video pieces, Worry Will Vanish (2014) and Mercy Garden (2014), loop on the conjoined screens. Visitors recline on large, pebble-shaped cushions on the floor. I initially hesitated to join them, feeling conscious of how on display my own body would be. Reclining is a gendered pose, too, presenting a certain kind of to-be-looked-at-ness that is historically associated with women and traditional femininity. I felt surprised that Rist would initiate this possibility for viewing, but I eventually accepted the invitation for intimacy, drawn in as I was by the video. The seamless transition between the films and their visual similarities made viewing them like one long film. I interpreted them as one entity: a poetic combination of plant close-ups with human flesh.
On a different floor, another of Rist’s viewing environments,4th Floor to Mildness (2016), was created for the exhibition and takes this experience to the next level, as she provides numerous beds for visitors from which to watch projections on the ceiling. The footage for this environment is similarly dreamy and nature-focused. In these unusual reclining positions, I lost myself in the work. I could feel the comfort of Rist’s imagery. I felt in awe.
Awe is one of those words that embarrasses us today. When I first entered the exhibition, I bristled at the museum’s description of her work as “[fusing] the natural world with the technological sublime.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sublime” as “of very great excellence and beauty; producing an overwhelming sense of awe or another high emotion through being vast and grand.” As a buzzword and the topic of much discussion in high art theory and aesthetics, the sublime is something I typically resist in all discussions of art, associating it with paintings of epic natural environments (oil painting, of course) that invoke the horror and magnitude of a patriarchal God. But Rist makes me want to give it a second chance, even where I least expect it.
The installation Pixelwald (Pixel Forest) (2016) is more atmospheric than anything, and doesn’t clearly align with the other works. Figurative images of bodies and plants are absent, in contrast with her earlier works foregrounding naked bodies and sex, such as the playfully erotic Pickelporno (Pimple Porno) (1992). Nonetheless, walking through the space is delightful and, in line with the other installations, invites viewers to feel their own embodied presence. Strands of glowing lights in textured crystalline resin orbs hang from the ceiling, like jewel-toned jellyfish, illuminating the darkness of the room. The colors shift, undulating in time to gentle instrumental music. It almost feels like a cheap trick, but it works—this mass-appeal magic of Christmas lights installed in a gesture toward infinity. Pixel Forest might be an underwater hallucination or travel among stars. It’s easy to get lost here alongside viewers taking selfie after selfie. Though it’s simple, Pixel Forest cultivates its own form of awe.
The installation adds to this new, accessible sublime that Rist puts forth. What Rist reveals is that the vast and grand is from this earth: It is human, it is plant, it can be conveyed through technology, it is even candy-colored and simple. The sublime could be ours again, removed from its loftiness—a newly humbled word, rooted in life, only whispering of what could be bigger than us.
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest will be on view at the New Museum in New York through January 15, 2017.