A Conversation about Pipilotti Rist

by Rachel Cook January 2, 2007

In talking to people about the show at The Contemporary Arts Museum, I find that everyone seems to have a similar response: I like it but I just can’t figure out why. Rist creates a magical world where you almost have to duck to enter and I keep coming back for more. Why do I like this show so much? This is the first question I ask myself after three or four times of visiting it. Maybe I just like video installation. Maybe it is those damn corner projection pieces.

Pipilotti Rist...Apple Tree Innocent On Diamond...2003...Video Installation...

Maybe it is the girl smashing the car windows. Maybe I just wish I were that girl, or, better yet, the other girl singing and dancing underwater to my favorite Chris Isaak song. Somehow the show has the perfect combination of female sexuality and wanting to be a pop star with a touch of mischievousness. In addition, Rist tops it all off with so much variety of video presentation: small lips on a medicine cabinet, a tiny body in the floor, a double projection in the corner, legs floating around the room over lace fabric and light shining through plastic containers.

In thinking about the show, I wanted to talk about and/or write a review without it just being this monologue in my head. Regular GT contributor, Noah Simblist, and I decided to try a back-and-forth dialogue in an attempt to raise more questions than answers about the installation of video art, the influence of pop stars and the use of the female figure — specifically, Rist using herself in her videos.

Pipilotti Rist...Ever Is Over All...1997...Video Installtion...

Do you remember the first time you saw Pipilotti Rist’s work and what you thought of the work?

The first time I experienced Rist was in Paris at École des Beaux Arts, while I was an exchange student. I explored different galleries and was particularly interested in video and performance at the time, not that I have changed much since “97. I saw an older single-channel work with an intensely bright background and Rist was in the center singing MTV pop songs. I recall not being particularly impressed immediately, but somehow her image lingered in my mind, and then I began always seeing her name as I was traveling to various shows around Europe.

However, the first piece that really won me over was Ever is Over All (1997) in Berlin. I remember being so struck by the two videos shown in a corner. Rist had me convinced this girlwas real or that this really happened. I think I wanted so badly to walk down the street and see someone smash car windows that I believed Rist just stumbled on it. She tapped into the punk rock girl while her character was still sweet, wearing a bright blue dress and red lipstick . As a child of the eighties watching Madonna, I related to this character that seemed so free walking down the street and smashing car windows at will. -Rachel Cook

The first time I saw her work was at the Guggenheim show Moving Pictures in 2002 where I also saw Ever is Over All, which seems to be her most famous piece to date, I think. I remember being entranced by the weird paradox of hippie flower power and seemingly meaningless destruction– the lyrical cuteness of a smiling woman turned fierce. I can’t really say that her gesture seems anti-capitalist or even feminist in an overt way. I can go down a whole road of analysis about this point, but for the moment I will say that I had a similar feeling as you did, purely experiential – not unlike viewing abstract painting.

It’s the abstraction of the situation that is the most provocative – the lack of clear-cut characters or a traditional narrative arc subverts our expectations of film, leaving us with something much more oblique and even poetic. -Noah Simblist

Pipilotti Rist...Sip My Ocean...1996...Video Installtion...

What do you think about the installation in terms of the architecture of the gallery? Is this the best way to present Rist or what is the best way you have seen Rist or video installations presented (where and when)?

I think that the transformation of the space at the service of the work really ups the ante on what video can do as an art form. It engages architecture with the play between the colors of the walls and the vivid colors of the videos. It engages the idea of sculpture, especially through the use of found objects like a tree ( Apple Tree Innocent on Diamond Hill [2003]), a mirror ( Hello, Good Day, (Kiss Mouth) [1995]) and the floor itself ( Selfless in the Bath of Lava [ 1994]).

Related Legs (Yokohama Dandelions) (2001) was the most ambitious on this level to me. The overlay of a rotating projection on top of another fixed projection and the use of hanging transparencies really pushed the issue of context. Rist is great at using juxtaposition to probe and question an image. The mirrored videos and the use of sculpture, architecture and sound all affect the video in ways that a traditional filmic experience lacks. This breaks us of our desire to be convinced – to enter a state of willing suspension of disbelief. We are caught off guard and still seduced into a state of abandon – but this state is more active than the passive, popcorn-eating stance in which we typically watch film. -Noah Simblist

I totally agree about the transformation of the space. The CAMH is notorious for its ablity to shift the space 180 degrees from one installation to the next. Rist’s show fits right into that mode. Although there is something defiantly different about this show; the artist’s hand seems more active, from the handwritten title of the show on the wall to the treatment of the sheets/fabric in Related Legs (2001). This transformed environment provides the best way to see Rist– when she gets to explode in the space with her projections; the CAMH’s ceiling has never looked so good.

After you enter by slightly ducking, Rist takes you into an Alice in Wonderland’s world with sharp angles, assorted videos, and vibrant colors, even though the Super Subjective [2001] is the least engaging room in terms of treatment of the space — no carpet, no color on the walls, and sounds coming from every noock and cranny. And so many other video exhibits propel you to move slowly through a darkened room with one bench in the middle and literally fall into the formulaic motion of walking in, sitting for awhile, looking around, watching other viewers come in and sit down and then leaving when you feel strained or when the loop is finished. In contrast, Rist breaks everything all apart. She makes me want to do cartwheels through the gallery and run my hands through the plastic objects in the trees hoping they will make a similar noise like a wind chime. -Rachel Cook

Pipilotti Rist...Selfless In The Bath Of Lava...1994...Audio and Video Installtion...

How has pop music/MTV influenced videos and how do you define the difference between music videos and art/performance videos?

MTV has changed the medium of video and even our ways of watching films: each musician uses the music video as a template to present a mini-film with scenarios and characters that are being sung about or to. Some musicians collaborate with young, up-and-coming filmmakers who create music video to help promote their careers. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham have all formed a label together, Director Label, with their music videos. To me Spike Jonze videos are more along the lines of performance videos. I guess the main difference with music videos and performance art videos is the music video has a specific length: the song itself whereas performance art videos can be whatever length, size, format the artist wants them to be.

The unusual combination of video, space and objects is why I find Sip My Ocean (1996) so intriguing. The treatment of every object ¾ carpet, color, “blue rocks” to sit on–so you literally transports you so you feel seated on the ocean floor being captivated by watching Rist’s body underwater. She takes a Chris Isaak song, Wicked Games, and alters the lyrics ever so slightly to say, “I don’t want to fall in love with you.” By singing and sort of butchering the song (screaming toward the end), Rist allows the viewer to have a music video experience with so much more. -Rachel Cook

The music video, along with commercials, has become the domain for experimental film, in my mind. They are short, cheaper to produce and unencumbered with the need for narrative, more so than even indie film. I thought a lot about music videos at the Rist show, not only as a genre that the videos are in dialogue with but also because the soundtracks were so accomplished as produced pieces of music. The sound and images are very much mutual: Supersubjective (2001) and Sip My Ocean (1996) are great examples of this.

I don’t really feel comfortable defining a difference between art and music video. I think the two main functions of difference are intention and the market. Some music videos are meant simply to sell the songs or the image of the musician, but sometimes music videos can be freed from that. A few examples that I can think of offhand are Beck’s use of Marcel Dzama costumes and OkGo, which has a hysterical use of low-tech male cabaret dancing. -Noah Simblist

Do you feel the use of self in artist videos is distracting, or does all the work become a self-portrait? How does Rist use her body in her work, and is it effective, i.e., could she use someone else and get the same effect?

Something about Rist’s work makes me treat the body or the “I” as a device rather than a literal reference to her. I’m thinking here of poetry or fiction that often uses “I” to refer to the narrator or main character. It never occurred to me to wonder whether the figures were her or not. So in that sense, I don’t think that all work is necessarily a self-portrait. But to go back to Ever is All Over (1997), the fact that she is a woman making an image of a woman with a flower that destroys does bring up some interesting questions about the feminist content of her work. I think that she could use other women and get the same effect because the work is so abstract. This is very different than Marina Abramovich or Vito Acconci’s work, in which their actual bodies are a major conceptual element. -Noah Simblist

The use of self in Mutaflor (1996), Selfless in the Bath of Lava (1994) and I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much proves to be less distracting because here when Rist uses her body, she opens up the dialogue with the viewer and pushes them into her reality. Her videos are a way of getting to know herself in and through the work. Then the character in Ever is All Over (1997) and the women’s legs in Related Legs (2001) don’t need her physical image. It is already built into the character.

Artists who use their own bodies in their work sometimes out of necessity, for convenience or to perform. Marina and Vito push their bodies to extremes and there is an uncomfortable sensation that happens when watching them. In contrast, Rist likes to perform, and I think it is different from Marina or Vito does because her focus is much more about letting yourself go in front of the camera. She also creates much more of an abstract film through her manipulation of color backdrops and camera angles so that the performance aspect becomes fun to watch. In contrast, Marina and Vito push their bodies to extremes so there is a more uncomfortable sensation that happens when watching them. – Rachel Cook

Images courtesy CAMH.

Rachel Cook is the editor of Glasstire and Noah Simblist is an artist and writer currently living in Dallas.

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