Pour It On

John Haber
in New York City

Pipilotti Rist: Pour Your Body Out

Pipilotti Rist keeps inviting one into her private world, only each time her world gets larger. At least her video installations do, while her own space floats ever so slightly out of reach. A later review considers Rist in retrospective, across more than three floors of the New Museum. Here I follow her through her largest installation to date and across eight years. You can decide which of us is the better curator.

Checking into the imagination

Now she has really made it big, and the title even gives precise dimensions. Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) takes over the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art—and not a moment too soon. Pipilotti Rist's Pour Your Body Out (Museum of Modern Art, 2008)In a space that again and again has drained art of its impact, she responds by pouring it on. She also does her best job yet of merging her public and private worlds. Who knows which in the end will engulf the other?

Perhaps no one before dared to measure the space, which has defeated pretty much every artist but Martin Puryear, and as news goes taming the MoMA atrium could be the art's best of 2009. As Jed Perl said about MoMA's 2004 expansion, it reduced the Water Lilies by Claude Monet to a Band-Aid strip. Dan Perjovschi later managed to fill it top to bottom with graffiti. And all I got was the contents of a couple of thousand lousy t-shirts.

Matt Ducklo has photographed "touch tours" for the blind, at museums from Tate Modern and the Hirschhorn sculpture garden to New York City. When a visitor hugs a statue by Gaston Lachaise, for example, the unseen face seems desperate to grasp the standing nude's voluptuous austerity. One realizes with a little sadness that the bronze will never reach back. He also tackles MoMA. In those first months of Yoshio Taniguchi's atrium, a woman reaches up along the base of Broken Obelisk, by Barnett Newman, as if in prayer. No one, Ducklo seems to say, will ever know that lonely cavity.

Pipilotti Rist does, and she pulls it off by calling attention to the atrium's limits while overflowing them. Her colorful projections cast their sensual excess across three long walls. At the same time, their continuous horizontal band marks a sharp demarcation: it separates the second floor's interior from the exterior of the galleries above. A huge breast on an upper story masks the projector. Video has become architecture, and architecture has become downright sexy.

Rist creates a concentric series of entrances, only beginning with the museum walls. A circle of white carpeting surrounds a circular sofa with, in turn, deep red carpet at its center. One can take off one's shoes, lie back, and for once notice tall gallery windows high above. For once, too, people are taking time out from the permanent collection to stare eagerly back, down into the red abyss. From the outside world, one enters an installation. Once there, one can swim in an imaginary space apart from both.

This time, observers really do discover a space between their lives and hers. If the atrium looks too much like a hotel lobby, hundreds might well have checked in. Rist plays with one's awareness of an oversized gallery. She makes one aware of the size in comparison to the outside and the imagination. She also supplies perhaps the first child-friendly, X-rated feminist humor. Digress for a moment to past work, to see how she came to create a rating board all her own.

Flower child

Rist has made video art like insane TV commercials for a while now, only a lot more grown up. Sure, they may sometimes come a little too close for comfort to Saturday Night Live. At the Modern, though, one realizes that she has made site-specific work all along. One also starts to see the site as part of its content. If anything can make the museum less corporate during the holiday season, perhaps a mix of comedy and feminism can help.

It is not her first invitation to explore. One can still sometimes spot her through a floorboard at P.S. 1 from the late 1990s, where her video eye bobs up toward the viewer. By 2001, she already spans the corner of a room, with a woman swimming ever closer. By 2004, Rist's four corner projections expand to flowers, a Swiss mountain landscape, and a luminous nowhere—all framed by a mock chalet in place of gallery furniture. Along the way, she has projected onto a ceiling in Venice and strolled an endless sidewalk in slow motion.

It helps to chart the changes in more detail, starting with that permanent display at P.S. 1 from a decade or more ago. In this side of the fun house, she does indeed peep out from only a small hole in the floor. Yet she makes one believe that her space contains multitudes, whereas the high ceilings and firm ground of the former schoolhouse are confining. I once almost overlooked the work entirely, but now my imaginings cannot be turned back. Even minor turns in her art since then, poking up through leaves or invading a cramped restroom at the Guggenheim, have me imagining more than I could ever see.

She appeared again in "Open Ends," a winter 2001 survey of the Modern's holdings since 1960. There Rist adopted a smile that refuses to go away, even after it no longer seems quite so sweet. Ever Is over All seems worlds away from the somber tone of Gary Hill or Bill Viola. In Rist's video then, the heroine in a flowing dress drifts toward the viewer in slow motion. She carries what might well pass for a flower, with its pink bulb and long, green stem. Only she stops every so often to smash a car window, before tossing a lovely nod to a policeman, a passerby, or you.

Like Yoko Ono in that same show, she can take on a serious issue like gender or the body in art, mostly female, while joining the pageant. Like Ono, too, I took Rist in maybe just a little too easily, like a tour guide to Postmodernism's vacation spots. Yet I cannot deny her pleasures or her aspirations.

The advertisement for art, culture, personal identity, and vandalism reaches beyond transparent ideology: the closer she gets, the funnier and more chastening "you" look. Ono calls an all-white chess set Play It by Trust. In Rist's colorful, post-feminist gamble, as in so much of the postmodern carnival, smile warmly but trust no one.

Oceans away

In Sip the Ocean, included in the 2001 group show "Into the Light" and in part in work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Rist swims toward the camera. (A separate review of that show, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, provokes some comparisons of her strategies to those of other video artists.) The tantalizingly long video holds her out like a flower, just as she had used that imitation flower to bash car windows—and never mind the puns on flow. In each case an unsettling mix of ritual femininity and superhuman strength adds to the dangerously inviting associations. So does music and a mad flurry of passing objects.

A translucent medium like the ocean is ambiguously distance, a glass, and reflective as a looking glass. Does it bring one closer, bar one forever, or fixate a woman on her own image? Swimming orients Rist horizontally, of course, but just try to guess whether she is pleading for sex.

Pipilotti Rist's Sip the Ocean (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1996)As Rist swims to sip the ocean, her props drift down from above and out of sight. From a pitcher to a doll, they all parody assigned female roles. Her muddle of idealized love, lust, and pop culture extends to music, too. The artist, who first made waves with a video based on a John Lennon tune, here sings, "I don't want to fall in love again." Already Rist had something of the status of a pop star, not inappropriate for a woman who has also had her own band.

Sip the Ocean spans two walls, in mirror reflection. Like Lynda Benglis or Joan Jonas in her video work, Rist defines herself by her appearance in a mirror. Jacques Lacan wrote of a "mirror stage," as essential to the development of a child's identity. Artists, she seems to say, know full well how to deal head on with the idea of a woman as an overgrown child.

The idea naturally comes with high expectations. As always, Rist's subject float in an all-encompassing sea, and, as always that subject is herself. Her trick is to dare viewers to join her—and to confront their own motives for wanting to join her. As ever, she also makes anyone laugh. Three years later, a gallery show again brings her trademark floating world of unfulfilled desires. Yet for once her feminism and edgy wit are muted, her own image all but absent.

As with Sip the Ocean, the images from her 2004 installation leap out from two adjacent walls, all but dissolving a corner of the gallery. Sure enough, they are both stereotypes for consumption and an extension of her personal history. Herbstzeitlose (Saffron Flower or Fall Time Less) presents an animated travel brochure for Switzerland and for herself.

Tourist trap

More than before, here she inserts viewers into the piece physically as well as mentally. A wooden shed occupies the center of the room, much as Sue De Beer chooses a house to blur the boundaries between the video and the viewer's space. People sit on the bench beside the shed, uncertain whether they have become part of a summer in the Alps or trapped in bad memories of family picnics and sleep-away camp. Behind, still more fragile, humanoid shapes flutter in another projection. On second glance, one realizes that light is passing through scraps of clear plastic. One had walked right through them on entering, hardly noticing what could pass for discarded covers from lunch at the salad bar. Call it a room of perpetual salad days.

Is that a problem? Some will want fewer smiles, more laughter, and a lot more confrontation. For once, Rist appears only in a quirky box in the back room, like a sly cross between the work's signature and its own critique. And that brings me back at last to MoMA and 2008. Thankfully, she has now emerged from the back room and let an avalanche finally bury the alpine scene. Otherwise, the Swiss Tourist Board might have appropriated her rather than the other way around.

At MoMA, she or a surrogate reenters the picture, big time, and not a moment too soon. Cubic meters may make more sense for a Swiss artist. Yet Americans worried about miles per gallon should be grateful, too. One can never quite touch her slow-motion dream world, but one has plenty of space to play. So do children. On a weekend morning, the atrium could have passed for play school.

Kids clambered about, without paying the least attention to the video. No one seemed to mind the naked woman crawling forward on video—or the rivulet of blood across her tits. No one asked if androids dream of electric boars. On the museum's Web site, an image of Rist's immersive cinema sticks safely to the tulips. Arts funding, at least for now, is safe.

Before long, Pour Your Body Out runs through Rist's entire repertory of women, leaves, and flowers, all suspended between sunlight and water. They look equal parts raunchy, seductive, innocent, and downright cuddly. Apples hold out temptations or rot among soda cans. A cute, furry black mammal rummages through it all, as the audience's stand-in. One never does see the boar's sharp teeth. Regardless, desiring here is dangerous.

One parent asked his son to identify the shape of a pillow, which Richard Tuttle could have borrowed for his soft, twisted alphabets. The alphabet lesson also includes the sofa, whose soft O and dark center supply yet another feminist parable. Compared to other tellers of the same tale, such as Cindy Sherman, Rist can seem too obvious, too fixed in her persona, and too much fun. Yet the video artist benefits from the overkill. At MoMA, she is not only pouring her body out. She is showing off what went into her work all along.

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Pipilotti Rist appears on permanent display at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and had one of thirteen "independent, large-scale works" in "Open Ends," at The Museum of Modern Art through January 2, 2001. Part One of "Inner and Outer Spaces" ran through March 17, 2002, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Rist appeared again at Luhring Augustine through October 23, 2004. "Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)" took over the atrium at The Museum of Modern Art through February 2, 2009. Matt Ducklo ran at Eleven Rivington through December 21, 2008. A related review looks at Rist in retrospective in 2016.


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