A woman strides down the sidewalk in anarchic ecstasy, smashing one car window after another with an oversized red flower. The sound of glass shattering alternates with a dulcet harmony that carries visitors further along her path of destruction. On the adjacent wall, close-up and somersaulting footage of fields and flowers blooms alongside the protagonist’s rapture. A moment of tension arises when a policewoman approaches the young rebel, but with a nod and a tilt of her hat, she condones the woman’s lawlessness, and I find myself whispering yes, yes, yes to every glass-breaking swing.
Pipilotti Rist’s two-screen video Ever Is Overall (1997) celebrates the freedom to break rules – to transform life into revolution, and explode the screen into largescale projection. While this work has long been my favorite of Rist’s, her videos can take this percussion of freedom too far. The sensuality of the female body and the attempt to visualize a female erotic are prevailing themes in Rist’s oeuvre, of course, but until I saw the retrospective Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest at the New Museum, I couldn’t forgive her videos for their inadvertent exposure of the female body as, yet again, an object of sexual desire. What I recently realized, however, was that Rist is employing the camera as a machine for sensuality, magnifying and occupying the ways it binds us together. The female body, including her own, becomes an anchoring weight on a deep dive into a series of revelations in the experience of intimacy, vulnerability, and interconnectedness for her subjects and audiences alike.
Pickelporno (Pimple Porno) (1992) is Rist’s attempt to create a pornographic film about mutual arousal between partners. She made it as a response to 1990s’ raging debates about feminism and pornography. “I thought that we should have used all that energy to say what we like, and so I decided to make a porn film for women or a porn film I would like,” the artist tells the New Museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, in the exhibition catalogue. Using a micro-camera and an editing suite, Rist zooms-in on the bodies of a man and woman making love and portrays their bodily surfaces as a fecund landscape of wondrous intimacy. Shots of the couple’s caressing and penetrating bodies, abstracted and often indecipherable in their proximity, are interjected with slow-motion pans of landscapes, fruits, and flowers to form a primordial soup of organic possibility and cosmic proportions. Her admittedly funky interweaving of buttocks and oranges, pubic hair and squishy toy models of earth, pull together disparate threads in a celebration of sensuality as the connective tissue between people and things.
The first time I saw Pickelporno – on my laptop as an art history graduate student – I had the uneasy sense that its recourse to forests, water, and exotic fruits merely reiterated well-trodden visual metaphors for female sexuality. At the New Museum, I came to understand how Rist uses this natural imagery not as a visual substitution or shorthand for female sexuality, but rather as a tactile language through which female sexuality could expand outwards and speak. Swirling images of goosebumps, nipples, hair, and fingertips prickled me with their tactility, while verdant splotches of color and patterns bloomed across skin where the bodies met. The tactility of her videos offers an alternative to the male gaze for visualizing sexual desire and pleasure. The result is a psychedelic celebration of the freedom to be vulnerable, and the mutually-felt experience of intimacy.
Sip My Ocean (1997) offers another revelation in the experience of interconnectedness, this time between Rist’s shifting roles as the artist and subject of representation when she turns the camera on herself. The double-projection, positioned in the corner of a room, offers kaleidoscopic views of an underwater paradise, in which a bikini-clad Rist explores coral reefs and domestic objects, such as beadwork and teacups, as they tumble to the bottom of the ocean floor. Voyeuristic views of her chest bobbing above and below the water give way to probing footage of the shoals around her, with shots of her hands caressing the sea grass. As the images merge and separate in harmony across the walls, they evoke the artist’s own experience of splitting between self and other, on screen. Although water may serve as a visual metaphor for the fluidity of these positions, the soundtrack violently tears them apart to represent a more sinister experience of splitting. Slipping fluidly between sweet and manic versions of the Chris Isaak song, “Wicked Game” (in which Rist records herself screaming the lyrics, “I don’t want to fall in love,” over a softer rendition), the soundtrack bursts open the scenes of extreme voyeurism to perform what might be understood as the psychological mania caused by her division into the creator and voyeuristic object of her own work.
A hallway of Rist’s single-channel videos from the 1980s demonstrates how Rist has sought, from the beginning of her career, to shatter the conventions of popular visual culture, and give voice to the urgency of women to break free from its constraints. The best-known and earliest of Rist’s single-channel works, I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) takes on the length and format of a music video. With her breasts popped out of her dress, Rist heaves herself convulsively around the screen to the tune of a rapidly sped-up and slowed-down recording of her own voice singing the first line of the Beatles’s 1968 song “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Changing the line from “She’s not the girl …” to “I’m not the girl … ,” Rist gives “the girl” a voice. Through extreme fast-forwarding and a ceaseless waterfall of static lines, she abstracts and mechanizes her performance into a jittery, apotropaic dance intended to break free from the medium’s control. Her song communicates a similar sense of panic; sped up into a breathless and high-pitched chant, its searing impossibility presents a reminder of how the moving-image drives its female subjects to hysteria in their attempts to overcome objectification, and communicate as subjects, full stop. Although Rist spirals out on screen, the music video unravels around her by appearing as a mechanism for voyeurism and control.
With increased scale came increased freedom in the content of Rist’s work. Through largescale projections in the 1990s, and immersive video installations in the 2000s, Rist exploded the television screen into the space of her audiences and used the camera to explore how intimacy can be jointly felt and communicated. This is partially achieved through her ongoing expression of the sense of touch, which supersedes spectatorship in works such as Mercy Garden (2014) and Worry Will Vanish Horizon (2014). Surrounded by close-up scenes of bodies plunging into water, hands rubbing flower pedals together, and limbs moving through brisling fields of grass, we are drawn into these videos through tactile memory. In Worry Will Vanish Horizon, Rist traces fingertips with her camera and blends this imagery, edited in luscious and highly-saturated color, with digitally-animated and hallucinatory views of the body’s interior. Focusing her camera on the sensuality of caress, Rist leads us into intimate exchange. As we reach out for this connection, the installation environment embraces us. Pillows, carpeting, and plush seating accompany both videos, inviting viewers to sink into something soft. The haptic experience of the installation opens us up to the sensuality on screen, and we begin to make ourselves vulnerable enough to seek intimacy with our own surroundings.The affinity achieved in 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), the capstone of Rist’s retrospective, is resplendent. Visitors snuggle up and lie supine on beds to watch videos projected onto two amorphous screens hung horizontally from the ceiling. Comprised of underwater footage, the videos are visual and tactile symphonies in which disparate objects are filmed in such extreme close-up that they dissolve into a world of fluid abstractions, all light and surface. Rist creates a spiralling, slow-motion world, in which genitalia protruding from sea grass appear as natural as a hand speckled by the amorphous shadow of a lily pad. The magnificent underwater landscape is filled with surprises, and everywhere symbols of human sexuality are abstracted and interwoven with vibrant images of stirring underwater life. Supple and fluid, the water becomes a metaphor for the interconnectedness Rist’s videos and installation seek to bring to the surface. Her camera illuminates intimacy as an experience of ecstasy, while the installation forms a wondrous space in which we can feel safe to plumb the depths of our connection to unknown parts of ourselves, each other, and our environments.
Sensuality courses through Rist’s video work and it serves as the lens through which she lights up the world around her. When I had previously encountered the overtly sexual imagery of her videos, I mistook it for an uncritical celebration of the female body as yet another fruit to be picked in the gardens of Eden she represents. Going through the exhibition at the New Museum, with the opportunity to see her luscious videos as large projections and enjoy them in magnificently comfortable spaces, I realized that Rist’s work overcomes the feminist politics of objectification because it situates the camera and the female body on a shared spectrum, in which both are subjects, and the viewer is constantly led to shift their attention from one perspective to another. Her videos celebrate the freedom of perspective, and in their fluid and amorphous imagery, they radically and empathetically reframe sensuality as the connective tissue between things. Through this empathic exercise, Rist led me into the heart of something breathing.