From Flesh to Pixel

Louisiana’s grand Pipilotti Rist show presents 30 years of intimate exchanges between body and screen, from low-fi punk to immersive installations.

Pipilotti Rist, Open my Glade (Flatten), 2000. One channel video installation without sound (video still). Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine.

From the other side of the screen, Pipilotti Rist presses her face up against the glass. She pushes her visage around slowly, in circles, flattening her facial features and distorting them to the point of grotesquerie, creating a pervasive sense of aggressive, physical intimacy held back only by the thin membrane of modern technology. Called Open My Glade (Flatten) (2000), the work lends its name to Louisiana’s recently opened exhibition Open My Glade, which spans the entire southern wing of the museum as it unfolds thirty years of explorations and encounters involving body and screen.

The work incorporates references to Ana Mendieta’s photographic series ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints – Face)’ from 1972. But whereas Mendieta used the distortions created by the glass to symbolically mask herself, Louisiana’s Rist exhibition sees the screen becoming a medium for the negotiation and (self-)representation of the female body, and subjectivity in general. 

The show opens with the feminist piece Ever Is Over All (1997), which recently prompted a new generation to google Pipilotti Rist when Beyoncé plagiarised it for the video accompanying her hit song ‘Lemonade’. The work shows a young woman walking down the street, carefree and confident, carrying a cast iron replica of a red hot poker flower, rhythmically smashing the windows of cars parked in the street as a female police officer looks on approvingly. The smashed windows in this film foreshadow the exhibition ahead, pointing toward later works in which the physical screen is transcended, transformed, or disappears altogether. 

Three small cinemas show Rist’s earliest works from the 1980s and early 1990s, which also punch holes in popular culture and ideas about the ideal female body, experimenting with their chosen medium in punk-like, humorous, and, at times, aggressive ways. Now enjoying canon-like status, I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) is a work done in a style reminiscent of 1970s performance pieces by Bruce Nauman and like-minded artists, except that this particular piece is wonderfully free from the self-importance typical of that era. It shows us Rist alone in a room, her chest half bare, energetically dancing along to her own music, all in front of an out-of-focus camera that regularly rips her body into zigzag shreds of static. The tape is played on fast-forward, causing her voice to reverberate in hysterically high notes while her body jerks and stutters rapidly.

If her early music videos are redolent of low-fi riot grrrl feminism, her later works slide toward something like psychedelic multimedia or installation-based chillout zones. Louisiana’s own collection contributes Sip my Ocean (1996), which spreads its melancholy undercurrents of unhappy love out across two works that mirror each other in kaleidoscopic fashion. Viewed through an underwater camera, we follow a foundering relationship all the way from happy memories of a distant trip to the seaside, to the ruins of a home sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The soundtrack is Rist’s own half-desperate, half-ironic take on Chris Isaak’s 1989 hit song ‘Wicked Games’an earworm that’s still running through my head now – three days after my visit to Louisiana.

Pipilotti Rist, Ever Is Over All, 1997. Two channel audio-video installation (video still). Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine

Water is also abundant in the large-scale installation 4th Floor to Mildness (2016)where we find ourselves just below the surface of the water in a kind of transitional state between different worlds. Lying in beds underneath two large screens mounted on the ceiling, we are lulled half asleep and enter a dreamlike universe conjured by the young-girl whispers of Soap&Skin incanting “when I was a child,” a phrase evoking (in me, at least) memories of long summer days with the sun pricking at shut eyelids. Above, the water washes over me with a whooshing sigh, whirling up rotting leaves that merge with images of bathing bodies filmed in extreme close-up: pruney fingers, pale limbs, a toenail glinting in the light. 

The clash between the girlishly innocent glimpses of memories and the cycle of life – from erotic turgidity to mushy dissolution and decay – takes on an almost claustrophobic level of intimacy. Undoubtedly, this is also because the horizontal position immerses the entire body in a multi-sensory installation that transcends the traditional relationship between public and private spaces. That is why it feels so transgressive. 

The boundaries between body and image dissolve entirely in the very instagrammable installation Pixel Forest (2016), where we move among three thousand LED lights encapsulated in crystal-shaped resin. The lights slowly change their colour as if a vast video image were gliding through the entire installation in slow motion. It’s all seductively beautiful in a Kusama-like way, prompting the glow of many mobile phones to rival the LED display, and letting the observer’s self-representation through the screen become the real focal point of the work. Juxtaposed with Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Lava, 1994), in which a microscopic Rist yells up through a knothole in the floor,  Pixel Forest also becomes an interesting symbol of how changeable and malleable scale and physical experience can be in a digital realm.

Pipilotti Rist, Sip my Ocean, 1996. Two channel audio-video installation (video still). Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine.

Through the course of the exhibition, Rist’s audiovisual works gradually shift away from the static space delimited by the edge of the monitor, and veer out into images projected directly onto walls, ceilings, and objects – including a dish by Asger Jorn, which almost seems to liquefy as a very colourful sunset is projected onto it. The projections transform the objects into porous membranes and liquid surfaces, ‘dematerialising’ them and making them part of a constant flux. Rist is simultaneously complicit in and critical of the seductive nature of the digital world. With its playful and colourful sensuousness, the exhibition Open My Glade unfolds not only the fantasies, but also the anxieties associated with the triumphant entry of screens into our lives.