Pipilotti Rist’s Eyeball Massage
Perched on a leather stool facing three television screens with headphones hooked up below, it finally occurred to me that I was, in fact, in the wrong place. It was a haphazard start to my guided tour of the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist. The films opposite were early works by Rist; single-channel videos that had challenged the conventions of video art when they were produced in the 1980s and now spluttered and flickered away to an empty room. Embracing technical glitches and amateur aesthetics, the films presented layers of colour bleeds and interference with text that looked like it had been written using a primitive computer programme. The neon tones and the fuzzy lines of broken video have become quaint relics of a time when VHS tapes littered homes and MTV shocked parents. The video – a relatively new medium but a steady part of everyday life – was ripe for playful experimentation, just as digital technology excites artists today.
The works showed a female, self-orientated perspective. The relationships between men and women are on the whole antagonistic; a disembodied hand plunges a woman underwater in (Absolutions) Pipilotti’s Mistakes (1988) while a naked man swings his fists at the camera in Sexy Sad I (1987). There is a bitter yet humorous reproach in You Called Me Jacky (1990) as Rist herself, immaculately beehived, lip-synchs to Kevin Coyne’s song ‘Jackie and Edna’. Looking like a sardonic karaoke-ing member of the B52s, Rist stares into the camera with a look of defiant insolence as images of train journeys and flames fade behind her.
When I finally caught up with the tour led by feminist philosopher Nina Power, in front of some more recent pieces, it was clear that analysis of the work would be loose and non-prescriptive. Rist’s artwork, while it has clear themes, is fluid and slightly evasive. The discussion threw up questions of feminism, scale, nature and narcissism but never arrived at any clear conclusions. In Rist’s later works, the simple format of the 80s videos is gone and replaced by more complex sculptural installations and inventive projection. Film is displayed on white walls, along sheets of material, on miniature monitors buried in the floor; it is hidden in handbags and conch shells, reflected on humongous mirrors and inside the model of an HIV virus. The female perspective shifts its focus on the woman’s body with dizzyingly claustrophobic close-ups of mouths and genitalia. The natural world starts to appear in a hyper-saturated, rave-inspired aesthetic. The speed of the moving images is excessively slow, almost trance-like, creating a hallucinatory, dreamy alternate universe.
Amid the stunning bodies and idealised visions of nature, a hint of carnage seeps through. One of the centrepieces of the exhibition, Lobe of the Lung (2009), projects images onto three large walls as the viewer sinks into velvety carpet and scattered cushions. Bright tulips, glistening apples, a snuffling pig appear beautiful in their otherworldly colours but the illusion is slowly distorted by interruptions of violence; a machine harvests the flower heads, a woman lurches naked on all fours like a farmyard animal, fruit rots, blood appears between a woman’s legs. Even in this fantasy world of riches, there is an eerie, creeping sensation that all is not right.
The slowness and otherworldly aesthetic of this dream world is magnificently seductive. The Hayward’s exhibition promises visitors an ‘eyeball massage’ and wandering between the rooms was a soporifically languid experience. The viewer is so overwhelmed by the works’ immersive nature and large format, it becomes hard to offer hard analyses or impose logic. Stumbling up from the cushions and away from the tour, a little unsure what to make of it all, I re-visited the early videos and wandered into a room I had previously missed. Projected on the far wall was Rist’s 1997 work Ever Is All. Like You Called Me Jacky, the film is a kind of elegant two-fingered salute. A beautiful woman dressed in a chiffon Grecian dress and red heels strides down a European city street, a tall-stemmed tropical flower in her hands. Lost in her own impervious world, she walks along the empty pavement to an ethereal Hawaiian slide guitar and slowly fractures the window of each parked car with the exotic stalk. This act of aggression is performed with both a startlingly calm efficiency and child-like glee. At one point a police officer passes but just nods and smiles. The combination of female beauty, playful subversion, humour and violence is key to Rist’s work. She creates an escapist vision but one that points out the societal and physical constraints of our everyday lives with a joyfully anarchic spirit. In particular, the limits of the female experience are wrought large. Death and decay break through awkwardly and with an incongruous fierceness; perhaps it is in this way that Rist’s alternate universe mirrors our real lives more than we would like to acknowledge.