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Call it video extravaganza—the wraparound environment of multiple projections, color, light, sound, and music. It’s inspired by or a distant relative of TV, MTV, movies, rock and roll, and performance and conceptual art, and if you look closely you might glimpse the phosphorescent corona of ’60s phantasmagoria. Whatever you call it, it’s everywhere. Most of the best work in the Whitney Biennial is video installation, led by Doug Aitken, Dara Friedman, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. We’ve just seen Ugo Rondinone’s knockout, six-screen work at Matthew Marks, which was not unlike breathing distilled morphine. Last month, Guy Richards Smit’s projected stand-up comedy routines at Roebling Hall were hilarious. Gavin Brown is featuring Friedman’s riveting three-screen installation of women tearing their blouses open. Now Pipilotti Rist has come to town.
Drifting through Rist’s trippy, trance-inducing, overdone pleasure dome of an installation at Luhring Augustine—involving no less than 15 video projections, many of them emanating from or appearing on pieces of furniture—is like reading Virginia Woolf. Images are ambiguous, the form experimental; story line is nonlinear or nonexistent. Yet, as with Woolf, a lot can happen to you if you let it. Rist’s work gives you the uncanny feeling of floating through someone else’s consciousness, of knowing their inner thoughts and seeing the everyday world through their eyes. She takes you out of yourself, places you in her body and the bodies of others, then plops you back into your own skin again.
Rist, who is 38 and Swiss, may be a revelation to many American viewers, but she’s been a star in Europe for nearly a decade, with more than 20 museum shows and a string of international biennials on her bio. She wowed in Venice in 1997 with Ever Is Over All, a two-screen projection of a young woman strolling an unsoiled Zurich street, pausing to shatter the windows of parked cars with an iron flower like an avenging angel. Her permanent installation at P.S.1—a tiny projection of the artist crying for help from a hole in the floor—captures a feeling we’ve all had in institutions. In her 1986 masterpiece, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, a topless Rist gesticulates wildly, singing the title over and over. It’s as if a goddess had inhabited MTV.
For her New York gallery debut, Rist is trying to take her art into more material realms. Stepping into the main gallery is like entering an enchanted cave or a haunted house. Everything goes a little ectoplasmic, but not in a Cronenbergian, TV-equals-death, dystopian way; Rist is way more utopian. Here, she weds video to the domestic. The space is set up like the apartment of a pack rat addicted to modernism, its walls papered with a kaleidoscopic collage of interiors. The lights are low, and a hypnotic soundtrack fills the opiate air. Spellbound viewers wander among furniture, flowers, and knickknacks, staring at video projections behind plants, on liquor bottles, kitchen cabinets, paintings, and tables. Woolf said she liked to “dig beautiful caves” for her characters; Rist peoples her lair with sensual spirits.
What at first seems like a twilight zone transforms into a walk-in erogenous zone. The place is polymorphous with references to the flesh. Snippets of video show Rist lying naked in a riverbed, someone fingering an ear, a throbbing corpuscle of blood, and the artist pressed against a window. Another image, projected from an easy chair onto a stack of books, shows the artist with blood running down her thigh. In the background, people lounge by a lake. Rist seems to suggest that no matter where we are—at home, at the beach, alone, or together—whether we admit it or not, we are always in our bodies, and that our fluids are the juice of life, proof of our being. Across the room and projected from a credenza, a clip of a naked man roaming the autobahn triggers uneasy thoughts of vulnerability. Elsewhere, a disembodied penis floats across a darkened wall. Rist is always making the conditions of existence real; she makes you feel the tingle and totality of it all.
With touches like these, her show is a libidinous hit, with patches of miss. Rist is an uneven genius of color, music, and the moving image. Her attempt to bring these qualities to installation is captivating but unresolved. She embraces her femininity; exudes power, control, and sex; avoids clichés and uses them at the same time. Her comedic touch evinces an enormous freedom and imagination. But as with Woolf, form gets in the way. The apartment installation is slightly generic, things don’t really add up, and finding the video snippets can feel like an Easter egg hunt.
Still, the effect of the main gallery is like an environmental Lava lamp, a continuous hallucination. Another large wall projection in the back pictures Rist as she wanders through a supermarket. In her head, we see naked dryads peering at her from some Eden. Rist seems to say, “We are always thinking about other bodies. Isn’t it wonderful that they’re also thinking of us?” A piece in the bathroom brings this thought full circle and back to us. Rist has mounted an infrared camera inside the toilet and placed a monitor nearby. Using this closed-circuit sculpture might make you see the wonder of your body, too.