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Inside Pipilotti Rist's Psychedelic 'Pixel Forest' at the New Museum

The Swiss mixed-media artist explores the limits of human perception through sound and video works in her new show at the New Museum.

Anna Furman

Anna Furman

Installation view of Gnade Donau Gnade (Mercy Danube Mercy), 2013/15. Photo: Lisa Rastl

Kaleidoscopic patterns of light flash through leaves and trails of bubbles materialize as the video camera pans over an oceanic scene. Clusters of kidney-like cushions are interspersed on the floor, inviting the viewers to sit, lie down, and let the immersive video wash over her/him.

Enter the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s video installation rooms and psychedelic colors meld together in unusual patterns and surreal landscapes morph—inviting visceral, emotional, and often spiritual responses. Pixel Forest, the first retrospective of Rist’s work in New York, is a three-floor collection of video works, LED light installations, and mixed-media sculptures steeped in the artist’s singular, sublime vision.

Still from two-channel video and sound installation Worry Will Vanish Horizon, 2014. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

On the second floor, one encounters Rist’s single-channel video works from the late 80s, which playfully subvert femme fatale and diva stereotypes. A series of translucent scrims serve as ethereal (but not altogether practical) backdrops for video projections of pigs and sheep running through fields. The color palette oscillates between warm and cool tones, providing a prismatic range that, along with the soothing female voice in the background singing “la la la la,” sets a dreamlike mood. Ever Is Over All (1997) is a split-screen video projection of a woman wearing heels and a light blue dress, walking down a street and gleefully smashing a car window with an unusually long-stemmed flower. (This imagery might be familiar to museumgoers: in the video for "Hold Up" on the visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé alludes to Rist’s video.)

Still from two-channel video and sound installation, Mercy Garden, 2014. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

Still from two-channel video and sound installation, Ever is Over All, 1997. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

In the hallway, a series of triangular boxes equipped with speakers and soundproofing insulation provide an intimate video-viewing experience. Viewers step onto blocks one at a time to enter the boxes, which enclose the body from the torso upward. The effect is an immersive, cocoon-like space—nightmarish for claustrophobes but a comforting place for easily distracted visitors to recalibrate their senses. Familiar songs by The Beatles and Kevin Coyne accompany the videos, and for several moments, one’s field of vision is limited and completely focused on Rist’s experimental videos. Presumably, she creates these microcosmal environments in order to play with scale and make the viewer aware of the mutability of their own perception.

Installation view of Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016. Photo: Lena Huber

In an interview with the curator Massimiliano Gioni, Rist explains what she wants the viewer to get out of her work: “to spit onto their mobiles so that they can see through their saliva how the pixels are fragmented and understand how the technology is composed.” She continues, “I think that technology, especially audio and video technology, is a complete copy of our senses.”

Still from single-channel video Pickelporno (Pimple Porno), 1992. Courtesy the artist, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York, videoart.ch, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

Rist’s newest and most expansive work, 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), lives on the fourth floor. Single and double-size beds in aquatic hues are arranged as if on a theatrical stage, encouraging viewers to lie down and look up at the two large, organically shaped screens mounted on the ceiling. The lyrics “When I was a child” recur like a lullaby, coaxing viewers into a meditative, perhaps nostalgic for childhood, place. The wide-angle videos are sensual and lush—featuring a collage of zoomed-in shots of nipples, flexed toes, rotting leaves, and streams of bubbles. One might have the impression of floating one moment, and the next, sinking to the bottom of a river. This is precisely where the video finds its power: in collapsing planes to make the viewer feel both in and of this world.

Whether one walks away under the artist's spell or simply more amused with the world around them, as Rist says, “any interpretation [of her work] is right.”

Still from single-channel video installation Open My Glade (Flatten), 2000. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest is on view at the New Museum from October 26, 2016 until January 15, 2017.

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