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Saturated, slow-motion videos of eyes, skin, flesh, and hair marble across the windows of an apartment building’s façade. The images are indeterminate and meditative—indistinguishable body parts swirl together in psychedelic splays. Nearby, in a radical shift of scale, a tiny, diabolic woman surrounded by flames reaches up to us from an almost vaginally-sized floor projection that a museum guard warns me not to step on. This is how pioneering media artist Pipilotti Rist invites us into Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor, her expansive solo exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, which lives up to its welcoming title. Generous and, indeed, big-hearted, it showcases Rist’s seamless collapsing of public and private space through her signature explorations of the immersive and sensual power of video. The exhibition marks the first West Coast survey of the Zürich-based artist’s extensive body of work and spans her three-decade-long career. Rist was among the first media artists of the ’80s and ’90s to expand video beyond the black box of the monitor, and her more recent work marks an innovative turn toward creating immersive environments through projections that disrupt institutional architecture, metamorphosing space into a sensorial, and at times haptic, introspective dérive.
While the majority of the works on view at The Geffen have been shown before (with the exception of five video installations realized specifically for the Los Angeles exhibition), for this retrospective Rist has installed them in a unique setting full of unexpected turns and unmoored from chronology or linearity. Instead, Rist upends both her oeuvre and the constraints of the screen, transforming The Geffen’s warehouse-like space into a series of communal living rooms, bedrooms, backyards, and forests—a far cry from the often isolating nature of our relationships with our screens. After nearly two years of doom-scrolling from our respective lonely quarantines, and at a time when visiting museums after a long hiatus still kindles renewed excitement, Rist’s exhibition feels like an invitation to a shared intimacy of her creation, rich with imagery of plant life, the ocean, outer space, and the female body. Unleashing these subjects’ knack for hypnotism without ever glorifying or reducing them to stereotypes, Rist dares to separate the contemporary idea of “connection” from its digital associations and returns it to its more neighborly origins.
One unintended side effect of Rist’s ambitious, enveloping installation is that its spectacularity distracts at times from its substance, encouraging surface-level engagement (often via iPhone selfie) that intercepts, and maybe even forecloses a more critical or genuinely transformative interaction with the work. In particular, the seductive, twinkling colored lights of Pixel Forest Transformer (2016), a hanging light installation, veer dangerously close to the art-as-entertainment aesthetic of projects like Artechouse or the traveling Immersive Van Gogh exhibition, a disconcerting effect that obscures the work’s more compelling conceptual status as a video deconstructed into a “forest” of individual pixels.
But elsewhere, a more unexpected, transportive immersivity is achieved to great success, particularly when objects and props are used as screens or canvases for Rist’s vast video repertoire, the projections stretching like skin across walls, furniture, rugs, books, in one instance through a yellow one-piece swimsuit in Digesting Impressions (Gastric endoscopy journey) (1996/2014), and even onto a replica of a veduta painting in Prisma (2011). Spattered across the museum’s surfaces, Rist’s video works bring static objects to life, enveloping carefully placed vases and knickknacks in a lush and idiosyncratic visual world, a veritable cabinet of curiosity.
Throughout the exhibition, inner and outer realities become porous and the screen acts as a double for human skin, a container for Rist’s messy, nearly-overflowing images, which often depict or evoke the viscous materiality of the body. Active bodies—often the artist’s own—float in and out of focus across naturescapes viewed from unwieldy and unfamiliar angles—tall blades of grass seen from the perspective of an insect in Another Body (from the Lobe of the Lung Family) (2008/2015), or mirrored visions of legs swimming underwater in Sip My Ocean (1996)—while technical manipulations representative of early forays into the video medium (playful use of green screen, experiments in color saturation) embed Rist’s subjects in kaleidoscopic textures and patterns.
Sip My Ocean plunges us into a collective experience of Rist’s design, a series of bodies (including Rist’s own) accompanying us on a nonlinear perceptual journey through water and sky and offering a resplendent alternative to our individualistic relationships to technology. The video’s mirrored image spreads across two walls in a viewing room adorned with large, round cushions on which visitors can lounge—Rist’s iconic cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” on loop. Rist croons the heartrending lyrics, “No I don’t wanna fall in love,” over and over, alternating between a soothing, breathy whisper and a blood-curdling cry that channels a punk sensibility. Her affecting song, replete with dragging guitar chords, sets the emotional tone for the visceral video in which an array of aquatic imagery pours across the screen. Bodies swim through a colorful underwater reef, and objects that evoke childhood —a beaded heart, a toy caravan—float through the water, tumbling in waves down to the ocean floor as swirls of orange fish compel us to drift along with them. Rist’s videos have no clear beginning, middle, or end. Instead, they wash over us with seemingly endless, cyclical imagery: much like our own sensory experiences of the world, they call upon feeling, memory, and dreams rather than narrative logic and the perceived continuity of time’s passing. This cyclical approach warps the linearity of the medium, bringing the video closer to the haptic quality of physical sensation, as well as its abstracted manifestations in both memory and dreams.
This temporal warping is just one device Rist employs to shatter the substrate of the screen, in turn seeking to break us out of our technological isolation by bringing the screen into the commons and reimagining it as an experience of collectivity. An integral manifestation of this substrate-shattering sensibility is Rist’s conflation of her body with the video monitor—her skin and the screen become parallel layers, just thin enough to hint at the possibility of breaking through to the other side. She explores this limit in Open My Glade (Flatten) (2000)—a video that was originally projected on a billboard in New York City’s Times Square—by literally pressing her face up to the camera lens as though she might be able to reach us through it, breaking not only the fourth wall but the physical boundary of the screen. A similar effect is achieved in many of the works on view, among them the three-channel video Neighbors Without Fences (2021), in which close-ups of an expansive, hazel iris and the moist lashes of an eyeball and lid threaten to pierce outward, dragging us back into their larger-than-life anatomy. Scale is collapsed: the eye’s pupil becomes a black hole or planet adrift in a nebulous galaxy.
Exemplifying the porosity between interior and exterior, Rist reimagines the public institution as an oneiric backyard where “neighbors” can convene in a dream state—whether lounging on oversized furniture around a TV monitor as if it were a hearth in Das Zimmer (The Room) (1994), sinking into a bed projected with lanky bodies drifting through the cosmos in Tu mich nicht nochmals verlassen (Do Not Abandon Me Again) (2015), or splayed across body-sized floor cushions and gazing up at an architectural-scale projection of the iconic Ever Is Over All (1997) playing on a loop. Rist invites us into the personal space of dreaming in Deine Raumkapsel (Your Space Capsule) (2006), a miniature bedroom in a wooden box that visitors can gaze into by climbing up a small set of stairs. Within the maquette, a minuscule projection of a fantastical moon floats across the room, colliding with the bedroom as in a wakeful dream. By inviting us into this space, Rist reveals an intimate dreamscape wherein we might exchange subconscious visions, setting the stage for a collective reverie.
In this cultural moment, screens largely keep us apart while sustaining an addictive illusion of connection. Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor asks whether screens, ubiquitous signifiers of our technocratic world, still have the radical potential to bring us together, to make neighbors of us. When Rist’s work is at its best, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. She revolutionizes the notion of the contained screen by making pixels material, projecting her visions onto whiskey bottles or parasols. Films enter into nostalgic sets, filling the windows that line the exterior of a quiet apartment building, someone’s laundry hanging down from a ledge. A projection onto communal red picnic tables beckons the viewer to sit, and thus temporarily become part of the swirling, abstracted plant-life beaming down. Rist sets up the possibility for neighborly communion by first making herself vulnerable through uninhibited explorations of her own body—though never with undue seriousness. It is with this sense of dreamlike play, in the spirit of childlike curiosity that exists outside of both logic and danger, that we are encouraged to join her. If screens can bring us together in shared experiences of trancelike wonder, perhaps we must first rethink their containers. Upending the notion of “screen-time,” Rist liberates her images from their tiny boxes, casting them sensually onto a world that is also of her making, in a blurred superposing of digital and material realities. Like figments of a collective unconscious in a shared lucid dream, these are images that are not afraid to touch.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 27.