“Pippi Goes to Video”
By Jonathan Turner
Pipilotti Rist is rocking the art world with her irreverent multimedia installations
She has been called “the siren of the 21st century,” “a Wagnerian femme fatale,” and “the enchanting superstar of the video clip.” Pipilotti Rist defines herself in the 1986 video I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, depicting a lighthearted figure dancing frenetically in fast-forward, then slowing down to freeze-framed lethargy—an anarchistic artist pretending to be at the mercy of her medium.
Born Charlotte Rist in the village of Grabs, Switzerland, in 1962, she changed her name in honor of Pippi Longstocking, the madcap, pigtailed storybook character. Nowadays Rist lives in Zurich, where she creates, and often acts in, video installations that run in continuous loops—“with no beginning or end,” Rist says, “so that people don’t have to give up a specific part of their lives to see the thing if they don’t want to.”
In Pamela (1994), she filmed a droll air hostess reciting absurd instructions to her passengers (“Love is never clear; in any case, fasten your seatbelts”); captured herself humming along to music videos, posturing like rock stars; and then in a well-tailored suit proceeded to impersonate a businesswoman—fitting, given her new role as artistic director of “Expo Schweiz 01,” the mega-exhibition taking place in two years in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
“Art already is the ultimate multidisciplinary field, including architecture, philosophy, social politics,” says Rist. “In this era of information society, it isn’t special that the director of Expo is an artist who deals with the feelings and emotions of telling stories, who works with the different levels of truth, who represents all the contradictions of today. Twenty years ago, they would have chosen an architect for the director’s job. Today, the content of what we show, the questions that we pose, are more important than the forms and containers of art.”
Back in 1993, a miniskirted, blond Rist hoisted herself up a ladder at the Venice Biennale to check the electrical circuits for her Sister of Electricity. Part of the Biennale’s “Aperto” exhibition, the installation—which kick started Rist’s international career—consisted of a video chandelier made from metal rings supporting a series of monitors partially obscured by cascades of crystal pendants. It showed images of red roses, limbs, and blinking eyes.
“My work is not about being obvious,” Rist points out. “There is a tragic element. I want pain in there—anywhere—too. Often I bring along a strong feminist and political content, but the message is going directly to the subconscious.”
Rist is the irreverent icon of the multimedia world, drawing on the languages of the day—music videos, computer graphics, and advertising. “Pipilotti’s importance is that she naturally and easily transcends the borders between mass culture, music, and art,” says Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, curator of contemporary art at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Van Nieuwenhuyzen, who included Rist’s Sip My Ocean installation in a 1995 group show, “Wild Walls,” adds, “She is flexible in her role as artist and in her use of different media, presenting more than one perspective.”
Projected in the corner of a room, the video, which was shown recently at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo’s exhibition of Hugo Boss–prize finalists, shows Rist floating in the sea amid churning flotsam on one wall, while on the other is a projection of passing clouds. The kaleidoscopic colors, zooming camera work, and Rist’s out-of-tune, underwater singing (“No, I don’t want to fall in love—with you”) add to the pervading sense of disorientation.
While studying at the Institute of Applied Arts in Vienna and the School of Design in Basel, she produced animated cartoons, designed scenery for pop concerts, and founded an all-girl rock band, La Reine Prochaine. By the late 1980s, her bright-colored high-tech videos had placed her on the front line of visual invention.
Her track record is impressive—25 solo shows since 1989, including one at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and another at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford; more than 130 group shows worldwide, including this year’s Istanbul and Berlin biennials; and shows at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt through the 22nd of this month and at SITE Santa Fe through January 24. Rist’s retrospective, called “Remake of the Weekend,” which opened at the National Gallery in the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin and goes to the Kunsthalle, Zurich, in January, represents her effort to stimulate feelings of leisure and liberty seven days a week.
Meanwhile, Ever Is Over All, a highlight of the 1997 Venice Biennale, for which Rist won the prestigious 2000 Prize, follows a seemingly carefree young woman as she skips in slow motion down an urban street. In her hand, she holds a hard-stemmed flower like a wand and proceeds, with unadulterated joy, to smash the windows of parked cars. As a Jaguar window shatters, a passing policewoman nods her head in a friendly greeting.
“I don’t have a particular style,” Rist says. “With everything you do, you lose a certain innocence. You can only improve with know-how. So I want to combine super know-how with a childish view, with the best possible innocence.”
These qualities come through loud and clear in a video she created for the exhibition space P.S. 1 in New York called Selfless in a Bath of Lava. For the installation, Rist removed a knot from a wooden floorboard to reveal a lilliputian Pipilotti pounding and squealing to be let out.