If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve likely seen a picture from the Pipliotti Rist retrospective at the New Museum. This exhibition has garnered tremendous attention- in part because of how incredible the exhibit is, and also due to its nature as a major spectacle. Like Yayoi Kusama’s “Give Me Love” and Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,“ “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” attracts the instagrammers and the travelers, all eager to document their artistic adventures. Though these exhibits differ in subject matter and medium, they share an infectious aspect of spectacle. Visitors were eager to snap a picture of themselves covered in colorful polka-dots in the “Give Me Love” exhibition space. Just take a look at my icon on your left! Visitors of A Subtlety were just as taken with the spectacle of the massive Sugar Sphinx. The photo-snapping of white visitors angered many, creating a controversy about the role of the viewer that you can read about here. Evidently, the rapid proliferation of ‘spectacle art,’ as I’ll call it, has led many to question the usefulness of these exhibitions. Are these shows ‘selling out?’ in an attempt to attract viewers? Or are viewers polluting exhibits with their smartphones, diminishing the quality of the museum/gallery experience for other viewers?
The reason I bring up this controversy in a review of Rist’s retrospective is that Pixel Forest confronts this controversy head-on. Not only is Pixel Forest a spectacle; it is a commentary on spectacle. Rist achieves this dual effect through a variety of means including size, use of unconventional art-making materials, and visitor participation. In this post, I will talk about how Rist uses these tools to create a spectacle for the viewer and to simultaneously ask the viewer to contemplate the usefulness of spectacle.
Additionally, I’ll talk about some of the other themes featured in Rist’s work through the years, such as voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity.
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The exhibition begins on the second floor. I took the stairs rather than the elevator, so the first work I encountered was Pickelmporno (Pimple Porno), (1992). Pickelporno is a video installation projected onto the wall in one of the side niches of the second floor. Take a look at a few of the snapshots I took of this rapidly moving video piece:
You can also watch the 10 minute video here.
It has been shot- or cut in post-production- into an irregular parallelogram, which immediately creates a sense of unbalance for the viewer. It is difficult to get our footing in relation to Pickelporno. If we want to look at the video head-on, must we turn our heads to the right to make our eyes parallel to the slanting bottom line? Rist invites us to manipulate the position of our bodies in order to consume her work. This is an example of audience participation being used to engage viewers in a work and create spectacle.
The content of Pickelporno is fascinating. The camera skims the surface of the human body, taking in the tiniest details of human skin and hair with a sharply focused lens. We see the thinnest of lines and grooves in the palm and foot of an unnamed person. Hands tug at short black hair and we follow this movement, gazing at a mass of oily strands from root to tip. The close contact with this person initiated by the camera turns the viewer- no matter how innocent he may feel!- into a voyeur. By watching Pickelporno, the viewer inhabits the space of the lens, wandering over a body and consuming every detail. Now, depending on the personality of the viewer, this could make a person feel a number of different ways. Embarrassed perhaps, or maybe guilty. Another could feel amazed by the the intricacies of the human form, or even titillated by it.
The transitive process of the viewer stepping into the role of camera man is fascinating in and of itself, but Rist doesn’t stop there. She juxtaposes these shots of hair and skin with images of leaves, oranges, sunflowers, lava, jellyfish and the moon. These motifs are examples of entities found in nature (and outer space). The presence of these objects next to the human being consumed suggests a similarity between the human form and the natural world. Seen from up close, the skin of an orange is not so different from the skin of a person. Thus, Pickelporno achieves a commentary on both voyeurship and the place of the human within the greater earth.
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In the center of the second floor are two screens at a right angle from one another. Projected on these screens are two videos that play one after the other: Sip My Ocean (1996) and Ever is Over All (1997). Below are two screen grabs of Sip My Ocean.
You can also watch the entire 5 minute video here.
Sip My Ocean features similar imagery to that of Pickelporno. The camera hovers over the human form, often zooming in on parts of the body, as shown in the image of pursed lips. These images are also juxtaposed with views of nature, namely, pixelated underwater views. The luscious underwater world is a playground of colorful shapes that bend and morph into otherworldly forms. Early video technology allowed Rist to manipulate the underwater footage, creating a sublime wonderland of bright colors and pixelated shapes that are in constant flux. This spectacular, real-yet-not-real setting is the space within which a bikini-clad woman swims. She is the focus of Sip My Ocean, even though stretches of time pass in which she is absent from the screen. She appears now and then between the waves. We are shown tantalizing views of her from all angles. The camera slides up her body slowly at times, focusing on her bouncing breasts. She is caressed by the camera, by the waves, and by us. All the while a haunting recording plays. She sings, “I never dreamed that I’d love someone like you/No I don’t want to fall in love.” This repeats for about 3 minutes, when she begins to scream over the song. She shrieks these words while the underwater landscape continues to grow and dissolve, glimmers of her body flashing across the screen and twisting upside down before disappearing altogether. It is as if she is drowning. Or perhaps the camera has taken ahold of her and is yanking her through the dimensions of this underwater world.
What is the message of Sip My Ocean? My major takeaway was that the protagonist- who is Rist herself- has little control for much of the video. The camera- and transitively, us- are voyeurs of her sublime body within a sublime world. Yet she struggles to gain control and assert herself, at the expense of the beauty around her. The more she shrieks, the more she disrupts the eerie landscape beneath her. It warps more and more quickly, fragments of waves and unnatural amoebas disintigrating as the voice rises in pitch. To me, Sip My Ocean is a representation of female struggle and female power, and a confrontation of the aestheticism linked to femininity. What happens when women fight this association- and refuse to fall in love? It dissolves around them into pixels of dust.
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Here is a sequence of four screen grabs from Ever is Over All (1997).
You can also watch the whole 2-3 minute video here.
In Ever is Over All, two sets of footage play on either side of the screen. On the viewer’s left, the female protagonist wears a blue sundress and red heels. Her hair is done in a neat up-do. She grins and saunters down the street carrying a long green object with a yellow and red oval top. As she walks, she swings the object back and forth in her hands until she reaches a car window. Then she smashes the object into the window, shattering the glass. She continues down the street, still grinning wildly. At one point a female officer passes her and salutes her.
Meanwhile, on the viewer’s right, the camera zooms up and down the stalks of flowers in a meadow. These flowers have long green stems with textured yellow and red petals. They mirror the shape and colors of the object the protagonist uses as a weapon. The flower footage adopts the meandering ‘gaze’ that characterizes the camerawork in both Sip My Ocean and Pickelporno. We are made to feel like we are consuming the flowers as we trace our eyes slowly up and down them, moving closer towards them and flipping upside down to devour them from every angle.
Flowers have an association with femininity, which the protagonist enhances with her sundress, heeled shoes and fancy hairdo. It is uncomfortable to see this beautiful woman wreck havoc on the street while wearing such a traditionally feminine outfit, surrounded by feminine symbols. Rist wants us to feel uncomfortable. In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves what specifically is making us feel this way. A feminine-looking woman acting in an un-feminine way is initially startling and makes us confused- why is she acting this way? Rist responds, “Why would she not? Who says she has to act one way or another?”
I assume, then, that Ever is Over All is meant to challenge traditionally ideas of feminine behavior, and the usefulness of the notion of femininity at all. Furthermore, the protagonist uses a weapon that is colored and shaped like a flower, but has the solidity and power to destroy a car (a typically masculine object). It follows that Ever is Over All is also a testament to female strength. Her strength is doubted because of her femininity- after all, the symbol attributed to her is the flower. And yet it is precisely a flower secretly made of metal that triumphs over the traditional symbol of maleness, the car.
The presence of the female officer saluting her introduces a female figure in a traditionally male role, further unraveling the viewer’s preconceived notions of femininity.
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To the right of the screens projecting Sip My Ocean and Ever is Over All is a series of white sheets hanging from the ceiling. Projected on them is another video. This installation piece is entitled Administrating Eternity (2011). Here is a photograph of one of these projections:
If one were to pass in front of this projection, the pink and yellow sheep would become projected onto his or her skin. Thus, in walking through Administrating Emily, the viewer becomes part of the work. Administrating Emily’s space depends on the viewers’ movements. Our bodies are additional screens, and our movements are perpetually constructing the work in new directions and manners. A man briskly walking between the sheets jostles them, making the images shake while 20 different colors illuminate his skin in quick succession. A woman standing still before a sheet becomes a three-dimensional screen, her silhouette grey against the sheet, but the projection bright upon her back. The amorphous space of Administrating Emily is in constant flux because of variation in human behavior.
The importance of audience participation in Administrating Emily is part of what makes it such a fascinating spectacle. People enjoy the fact that their presence influences a work of art. The importance of human behavior in determining the space of the work points to the importance of the individual in the collective experience, and the relationship between man and the world.
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The third floor is perhaps the most photographed (certainly the most instagrammed) of the exhibition. When one enters the space, this is what he sees:
It is the titular work of the exhibition, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” (2016). Here are several other pictures.
As you can see, Pixel Forest is always changing colors. It is composed of 3000 lights, each of which is one LED pixel that has been immersed in a polyurethane sculpture. As the viewer walks around, he is surrounded by whatever color the pixels are radiating at that moment. For a few seconds, the entire room is bathed in pink. Then the pink intensifies and turns red. Red gives way to a sensual purple, a bright blue, a vivid green. The colors of the pixels change in conjunction with the video being projected onto a screen behind the forest. I understood Pixel Forest as behaving in conjunction with these videos.
Worry Will Vanish (2014) and “Mercy Garden” (2014) alternate on the screen. You can watch an excerpt of Worry Will Vanish here. You can watch an excerpt of Mercy Garden here. Below are a series of stills from both videos:
The two videos continue Rist’s theme of combining close up, voyeuristic images of the human body with high-res nature footage. Digital technology has removed the pixelated quality so present in Pickelporno and perfected the fluid overlay techniques begun in Sip My Ocean. In one beautiful moment, the silhouette of a tree sprouts from the neck of a man. In another, a vivid red canyon can be seen from between the petals of green leaves.
Large pillows are provided for viewers to sit down and gaze up at the colorful footage on the walls. When I sat down, it felt as if I had just journeyed through a forest and had landed in a small clearing. In this way the entire space on the third floor mirrors a series of spaces in the natural world, and the process of moving through them.
Without a doubt, Pixel Forest constitutes a spectacle. It fulfills the basic criteria I outlined before: size, audience participation, and the use of unconventional art-making materials. The forest is vast- it takes up one third to one half of the entire third floor, stretching from floor to ceiling. Viewers are welcomed into the space and encouraged to participate by weaving their way through the strands of light, and making their way to the clearing to sit down. The use of LED lights in an artwork is unusual for the average museum-goer who may not study contemporary art. Even if he has seen art that incorporates light, he likely has not seen it at such a great scale. The result of all this spectacle is a sensation of awe. When I walked I walked through Pixel Forest, I wondered if this was how pilgrims felt when they walked into gothic cathedrals reflecting multicolored light through stained glass windows. There is something heavenly about a space flooded with light. It evokes sacredness, the supernatural, and the celestial realm. While not a religious work, the spectacular nature of Pixel Forest filled me with an overwhelming sense of the sublime. And so, Rist’s spectacle serves more purpose than to simply shock.
“Is spectacle useful?” the cynic may ask. Rist’s response speaks volumes: a spectacle that can aid the viewer in transcending this world.
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On the fourth floor, Rist instructs the viewer to lie down on a series of beds and look up at a video installation distending from the ceiling. Fourth Floor to Mildness (2016) is projected on two large screens. You can watch a short clip here. As you can see, the work continues Rist’s exploration of nature from different angles and perspectives. Below are several stills from the space, demonstrating the space between the beds and the screens as well as the shape of the screens.
Fourth Floor to Mildness is a site-specific installation created for this exhibition. And so, it took the architecture of the New Museum into consideration. The two large screens fill the ceiling space in the center section of the fourth floor. The result is a sense of organic unity; it does not feel as if anything else could fit in the space, or that anything should be removed.
The presence of the screens on the ceiling reverses the way in which we usually consume images. On the second and third floors we were asked to consume videos on the walls. There were also several videos projected onto the floor and through other unconventional means. The shift of the screen to the ceiling signals the final metamorphosis of image consumption. We are lying down, finally at complete and total rest.
Additionally, Rist confronts the dichotomy between individual and collective consumption through the inclusion of large beds. This forces strangers to lie down together, breaking down social barriers about the normative ways in which we consume images. The smart phone is individual. The movie theatre is collective, though we sit in individual seats. Fourth Floor to Mildness is collective. If you want to consume, you must first take off your shoes- another socially inappropriate behavior- and lie down next to total strangers.
The fourth floor is meant to be a culmination of the spectacle as a whole. It is vast, incorporates the audience in its representation and meaning, and questions social norms in a way that excites the viewer. I personally prefer Pixel Forest and its relationship to Worry Will Vanish and Mercy Garden in terms of spectacle and the usefulness of spectacle, but it is important to comprehend the exhibition as a whole. As the viewer makes his way through the different floors, he is asked to alter his body in relation to each work until he is lying flat on his back. I thought this was a fascinating curatorial choice, and was the most memorable part of Fourth Floor to Mildness for me.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the different works in “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest.” I have often thought about the construction and usefulness of spectacle, and was happy to encounter an exhibit that I believe facilitates the understanding of both. I also hope that you come away from this post thinking about Rist’s main themes: voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. These are topics that are relevant in our own lives, and issues that we can tackle both with and without art (though I prefer the former method).
One last thing I wanted to discuss is the abundance of documentation that I noticed in this exhibit. I went with a good friend and I believe we spent a good 20 minutes complaining about the people standing in Pixel Forest taking pictures of themselves. The sheer volume of people standing and snapping pictures made it extremely difficult for us to take a step in any direction. While I did manage to feel a sense of transcendence, it was not before jostling my way to the edge of the room, where there were less people with selfie sticks. We eventually spoke to a tour guide about this, and suggested there be an hour a day when cameras aren’t allowed in the New Museum. He brought up something we hadn’t thought about: Pipliotti Rist could actually be happy with the proliferation of screens in her exhibit. The whole show presented images in different shapes, on new surfaces, at unconventional angles. Administrating Emily was constructed on the idea that new bodies would forever create new screens, giving the work an amorphous, ever-changing, shape. Perhaps the millions of selfies taken per day in Pixel Forest were an extension of the work itself. Maybe the work is as big as our entire earth- or as far as a selfie bathed in pink light can travel. What do you think?
In the meantime, I very hypocritically still ask that you limit the amount of pictures you take per room to 5 (gasp) or you might find an elbow in your side.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3