First published in Museum magazine September 2014
Pipilotti Rist is an advocate for the power of selective memory. When I ask the Swiss-born artist, who creates hallucinatory wonderlands that leave a permanent mark on your consciousness, about her failed projects she admits – fittingly, for a video art wunderkind – to simply editing them out.
“Ja! I absolutely have failed projects but we human beings tend to forget them don’t we?” she says, with a conspiratorial wink. “I guess it’s just a survival tactic. Recently, I told a friend of mine that I’d never met a boy who didn’t want me, but clearly that’s not true!”
If it seems incongruous to quiz Rist – whose 25-year career spans starring roles in the Venice, Sao Paulo and Sydney Biennales and solo shows everywhere from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Hayward Gallery to the Centre Pompidou in Paris – on failure, it’s because it’s a last hope at keeping authorial distance. Prone to sweeping hand gestures and sudden onomatopoeia, Rist possesses the same liquid energy as her lush installations, an exuberance – that if you’re not careful – just may swallow you whole.
At first, Rist’s interest in energy was anything but abstract. “I started studying physics and transferred to graphic design as a joke because I always wanted to explain the world in pattern and movement,” she recalls. “When we dance, when we move, there’s a connection between all our molecules. Movement can highlight a common truth.”
But movement does more than highlight a common truth – it can also see real and imaginary boundaries bleed seamlessly together and grant landscapes and objects all the possibilities of a second life. In Ever is Over All (1997), a pair of overlapping slow-motion projections pits a field of dancing orange flowers against a blue-clad woman skipping down a street – but the blooms are recast as a weapon when she starts smashing car windows, an interplay of grace and violence that nods to the power of the benign. Pour Your Body Out (2008), a 25-foot high video work screened on the walls of MoMA’s Marron Atrium, sees wobbling apples and undulating tulips rule an amniotic universe of sound and colour, where viewers are invited to swap the limits of their bodies for an untold world of sensual pleasure. And I Packed the Postcard in My Suitcase, Rist’s 2011 survey at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, features pillowy lips that float cloud-like over a Venice cityscape steeped in saturated pink, hinting at the ways in which our external reality is transformed by the richness of our interior world.
“Our outsides may be rigid but inside we’re all blood,” she laughs, slurping an imaginary fluid to illustrate her point. “We tend to live in cities that are the opposite of what our bodies are. I would like to melt the inner and outer together again.”
Born Elisabeth Charlotte, Rist – who owes her moniker to Astrid Lindgren’s flame-haired heroine Pippi Longstocking – can can claim an artistic trajectory that mirrors the evolution of video art. In the mid-eighties, she started cobbling together Super-8 movies before making single-channel videos for her punk-pop band Les Reines Procaines, inspired by everything from seventies performance artists Joan Jonas and Yoko Ono to Michel Gondry and the scuzzy, alternative programming on MTV’s 120 minutes. Made when she was still a student at the School of Design in Basel, her first video work, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, shows a bare-breasted Rist singing a shrill, sped-up version of the Beatles’ classic Happiness is a Warm Gun, the blurry footage doubling as a playful takedown of the male gaze.
“I hope to sharpen and expand the senses and my work is feminist in the sense that I think that every human being should be able to expand,” says Rist, who believes that artists provide a service and owe it to their audiences to spread beyond insular creative capitals such as London, Paris and New York. Her political agenda is equally egalitarian: “When I meet nice people, I don’t have to be a feminist, but if I encounter an asshole, of course I become one.”
Although Rist might owe her practice to a legacy of feminist performance artists, her version of revolution hinges on the universalising of the feminine perspective, the ability to inspire viewers to shed bodily trappings and swim in an amorphous world. “It wasn’t so long that we were forced to consider our life possibilities according to gender,” she says. “We are divided by our skin all the time – even when we have sex. Our imagination is the only place we can really meet.”
Rist makes it easy to believe that galleries are less cultural institutions than they are portals to our deepest desires. On the ground floor of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a cool, dark space sees solo viewers, curious toddlers and couples sprawled on people-shaped cushions in various phases of hypnosis while close-ups of skin, blades of grass and foaming waves glide across the screen. In one sequence, a tongue morphs into a rolling mountain and a penis drifts listlessly in the ocean current to the rhythm of Chris Isaac’s Wicked Games.
“Every work is different. Sometimes I have a clear idea and I’m just hunting down the images and sometime I collect images I use only ten years later,” explains Rist, who also says that Mercy Garden Retour Skin, the installation she created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney, is an exploration of the tenderness of being male. “I have a big bank of material but the most time-consuming thing is actually taking the garbage away.”
In 2010, The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl crowned Rist the evangelist of happiness but as much as her work can spark euphoria, it’s also an education in the magic of darkness, light and shade. “I’m always seeing the sinister in the bright as well as the opposite but I also believe that beauty is of evolutionary importance,” she says. “If we didn’t have it, we’d go crazy.”
But for now Rist – fresh from a one-year sabbatical that saw her swap her studio on Zurich for the South of England – is eager to spend a few months focusing on the kinds of boundaries she plans on erasing next.
“I finally have time to develop new work but I have too many wishes,” she says, eyes twinkling. “The question is what sort of project will allow me to bring something necessary.”