Pipilotti Rist: Sip My Ocean

December 8, 2017
Pipilotti Rist, tripping without drugs
Pipilotti Rist, tripping without drugs

“I will always be grateful to popular culture,” Pipilotti Rist told an interviewer in 2001. As a recent video clip by Beyoncé shows, popular culture should also be grateful to her. Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean, at the Museum of Contemporary Art reveals the many and various ways this remarkable Swiss multi-media artist embraces popular culture, nature, the human body and the cosmos. I can’t think of another artist whose work is so holistic or more purely delightful.

Most of the big cultural and political themes can be seen bubbling away in this show but there is no trace of the sanctimonious cant one often finds when artists embrace ‘issues’. Rist’s career is one long demonstration that there are other ways to think and to live if only we can only free ourselves of the ideological shackles we wear by dint of habit. She frequently invites us to look at the world through the eyes of a child.

At first glance Rist’s work seems to be all surface effects: psychedelic colours, dreamy music, sly gags, kitschy objects, games with size and scale. There are echoes of everything from Alice in Wonderland to Fantastic Voyage, a movie that takes place inside the body.

Rist’s early videos have a crude, homemade aspect. She rapidly evolved into a maker of immersive, room-sized installations. Yet from the earliest piece to the latest there is a surprising depth to be found if we slow down and surrender – not to the void, as the Beatles sang in their trippiest moment – but to the content.

Pipilotti Rist: blurred homage. You Called Me Jacky (1990)

Pipilotti Rist: blurred homage. You Called Me Jacky (1990)

In one of her simplest videos, You Called Me Jacky (1990) Rist lip-synchs and plays air guitar to Kevin Coyne’s Jacky and Edna, with projected footage taken from a moving train. Neatly dressed, with sharp make-up and hair-do, she couldn’t be any more different from the shambolic Coyne – one of the true cult heroes of (un)popular music, whose songs are filled with pain, loneliness and bittersweet memories.

Rist seems to be making it up as she goes along, forgetting to move her lips, pulling faces quite at odds with the lyrics. But it works. Indeed, it shows an understanding of how a song can add meaning to the most disparate images. She repeats the trick with Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, which she sings in a high-pitched, tremulous voice in the video, Sip my Ocean (1996); and with Spiracle by Anja Plaschg (AKA. Soap&Skin), in the monumental installation, 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), which invites us to lie down and watch acqueous scenes unfold on the ceiling.

Rist says she is flattered that Beyoncé has chosen to rip off her seminal video, Ever is Over All (1997) in the clip for the song, Hold Up. She should be positively delighted, because this small act of plagiarism will prompt a huge audience to track down and view the original work.

In comparing the two videos one sees the difference between a work of art and the crassest of commodities. In Ever is Over All, Rist wanders down the street with a smile on her face, waving one of those long-stemmed flowers we call a Red Hot Poker. She has tremendous fun smashing the windows of parked cars with the flower. While she’s wreaking destruction a policewoman walks by and gives her a friendly wave. She exchanges glances with an elderly woman in a red coat (actually the artist’s mother). A lilting, ambient tune plays in the background.

Spot the difference: Pipilotti Rist & Beyoncé

Spot the difference: Pipilotti Rist & Beyoncé

We watch the video with mounting surprise and pleasure. Like so much of Rist’s work it has the atmosphere of a happy reverie. She says it was a way of “honouring nature, by exaggerating the power of a tender, fibrous plant.” Her flower is made of iron, just like a real poker.

There’s also a feminist dimension, as flowers are stereotypically associated with women (Was any man ever called an “English rose”?). Cars are boys’ toys – characterised by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, as “the armature of the ego”. Here, this armature is undone by a woman armed with a flower. The flower is also a metaphor for the female sex, as when we say that a girl who has lost her virginity has been ‘de-flowered’.

Rist turns the tables on the stereotypes in the most ecstatic manner, while Beyoncé reinforces every sexist cliché. Rist wears a modest blue dress, but Beyoncé sports an extravagant designer gown that makes her look like an alien strolling down the street in a poor, black neighbourhood. She attacks car windows, and much else, with a baseball bat, relishing the violence with a grimace. The forgettable background song is all about being misused by a famous, wealthy lover, and looking for an outlet for her rage and frustration. “Jealous or crazy” are her only options.

The Beyoncé persona is an angry, love-lorn woman pining for her jerk of a boyfriend. Rist’s flower-wielding vandal is a what the French might call a flaneuse – an idler, out for a stroll in the city, with time on her hands.

Like so much of Rist’s work, Ever is Over All is about going with the flow; behaving naturally, no matter how abnormal the situation. In more elaborate pieces she aims to break down the distinction between the body and the natural world. In a work such as A la Belle Étoile (2007) the camera soars up to the heavens and down into a figure’s gullet. This is not Rist’s only piece which seems to be made with an endoscopic camera that enters by one orifice and leaves by another.

Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald Motherboard (2016)

Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald Motherboard (2016)

In Pixelwald Motherboard (2016) the body is completely dissolved in a room that duplicates an exploding screen, with each of 3,000 pixels represented by a small LED. Individual lights are encased in resin cocoons, hanging from the ceiling on cables that resemble vines in a jungle.

Rist wants us to experience her installations with our entire body, creating environments that we inhabit momentarily, experiencing a derangement of the senses. In her work we discover the “oceanic feeling” Freud attributed to the child that has not yet learned to differentiate itself from the world of things. The end result, however, is not to remove our consciousness from the physical world, but to make us reflect upon our surroundings with increasing awareness, as if waking slowly from a dream.

Pipilotti Rist: Sip My Ocean
Museum of Contemporary Art, 1 November, 2017 – 18 February, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December, 2017