A Review of Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest at the New Museum, New York
“Help me,” reads a cool, white neon sign on the fourth floor of the New Museum, adjacent to Pipilotti Rist’s installation, 4th Floor to Mildness. It is a portent, an augury. It is visual representation, almost an echo, of a sound bite from Rist’s Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath of Lava) (Bastard Version), (1994), which is in the museum’s stairwell gallery. Whether you go top down (recommended) or bottom up, this exhibition is vexing and often discomforting, for both aesthetic and physical reasons. It has the veneer of happiness, joyousness, and freedom, with its “lite” musical soundtracks, natural world imagery, and soft psychedelic color palettes. It has the accoutrements of comfort with beds, pillows, and floor cushions for museum goers to use and settle in for the show. Yet, the exhibition and its cluttered installation may trigger a long list of phobias, ranging from agoraphobia (fear of crowded spaces) to mysophobia (fear of germs) to entomophobia (fear of bugs and insects) to technophobia (fear of technology). [Fearof.net has an illuminating list of the top 100 phobias; phobias that frequently shape and bracket memory and experience.] Subversion seems to be the point. It is not obvious. Hence, it succeeds.
Pixel Forest has all of Rist’s characteristic MTV generation loopiness. In the accompanying catalog, Rist says, “I’m totally fine with being a hippie. I am Pipi. And I’m not afraid of the idea that art can heal. That’s what I expect from art—both my own and work by other artists. I want art to be consoling or at least to bring some kind of enlarged logic to the way we are. We are surrounded by so many humming sounds, cables, and things going “zzzzz”—electronic devices, and air-conditioning, and cars, and all this stuff that apparently makes too little sense and makes noise. Like with a homeopathic remedy, for you to heal, you need the same thing that makes you crazy. That’s what I am trying to do.” Her time-based media installation art as homeopathy has more in common with Marina Abramović’s brand of soft shamanic therapy. For those who remember, Rist filled the MoMA’s atrium in 2008 with Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), predating Abramović’s populist and popular The Artist is Present (2010). In her MoMA outing, Rist’s introductory text said, “Please feel as liberated as possible, and move as freely as you can or want to! Watch the videos and listen to the sound in any position or movement. Practice stretching: pour your body out of your hips or watch through your legs. Rolling around and singing is also allowed.”
Assume that Rist and her numerous collaborators truly are subversive, and that she is the ardently feminist matriarch of this team. Rist is so clever, so strategic, that her subversions are easily missed by her audience, which is invited to chill out on the floor, the beanbag cushions, or beds. People line up at the museum’s entrance on the Bowery waiting for “an experience.” They are unassuming and unwitting patients of Rist’s psychic homeopathy. In fact, the audience may be memory and experience hoarders, a term to describe “a mental compulsion to over-attend to the details of an event, person, or object in an attempt to mentally store it for safe-keeping. . . .done under the belief that the event, person, or object carries special significance and will be important to recall exactly as-is at a later date.” The audience is downright manic with selfie- and picture-taking, wandering through dangling strings of LED lights in Pixelwald (Pixel Forest) (2016) or stretching out on single- and double-beds in 4th Floor to Mildness (2016). The museum guards—one of whom described the exhibition as “hell”—are obliged to monitor the visitors closely, telling people to maneuver carefully through the LED lights installation or to not wear their shoes on the bed. The crowd on a Saturday morning is enough to trigger a profound case of anthropophobia (fear of people).
Rist’s video installations often feel like an uncomfortable marriage between music videos and intergalactic corporate advertising spots, filtered through a nearly impenetrable Swiss culture. Hers a relational aesthetics art, just as is Carsten Höller’s, Pierre Huyghe’s, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s. The viewer can be protagonist or passive participant. There is certainly enough to see. There are too many works, actually, in the frustratingly cramped galleries. Even using the crowded, almost unnavigable, staircases of the New Museum is awkward. (Beware the selfie-takers on the stairs.)
There are too many memories and experiences to gather and hoard. The earliest works remains the most persuasive, like Ever Is Over All (1997) with its Lucille Ball mock anger. The placement of a mobile phone displaying a single channel video, Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath of Lava)—one of Rist’s greatest hits, a classic—on an internal staircase is genuinely questionable from a safety perspective, as is the neighboring installation of Komme bald wieder (Come Again Soon) (2016). But, overall there is a very real sense of sameness in Rist’s overdose of artist-imposed audience homeopathy. More awkwardly, the path through her installations is confusing in this somewhat seamless exhibition.
What someone remembers from a museum is not the same as what someone learns. They are related, but to paraphrase John Falk, PhD, a free-choice learning guru, museum visits are deeply personal and tied to each individual’s sense of identity. Now, to quote Falk, “what typically sticks in a person’s mind as important about their visit usually directly relates to the reasons that person stated they went to the museum in the first place; and often they use similar language to describe both pre- and post-visit memories.” [Emphasis added.] The motivational categories of museum visitors are typically narrow, reflecting a desire to satisfy a personal-identity need, even a “fictional one,” like enjoying art. If there was a MacArthur Fellowship for curatorial and museum studies, it should be awarded to the analyst who can explain the phenomenon of memory and experiential hoarders, who embrace immersive exhibitions like Pixel Forest.
Museums are increasingly popular leisure destinations, maybe venues, that offer experiences. [Emphasis added.] These experiences are actually no different than a visit to a mall or a theme park. They are no different than watching television or playing a Wi-Fi game. They are entirely self-referential activities, associated with identity-related needs like personal fulfillment, parenting, or novelty seeking. Pixel Forest excels at novelty, just as Abramović’s The Artist is Present did. It liberates the museum visitor from the usual experience of looking at two-dimensional, sometimes three-dimensional, objects in the context of a white cube. The museum becomes a fun place, an awakening place. The museum visitor can physically interact with the art, providing direct memory and experience, all for a general admission price of $16, about the same as the cost of an undiscounted movie ticket.
Thanks to Rist and her benign inoculation therapy, you can walk outside, up and down Bowery, and encounter the diminished authenticity of New York. You can almost see the vestiges of Manhattan’s historic “Skid Row,” where flophouses have been with smart eateries, art galleries, and low- to mid-rise celebrity architectural projects, displacing the few remaining homeless people and threatening the wacky lighting shops that border Chinatown. These shops rival Rist’s Pixel Forest. Just stroll down Bowery and peer in the windows. The reality is dazzling. There are memories and experiences to be made. Thank you, Pipi, for sharing your homeopathic prescription, your similimum. “Like cures like.” Reality seems real.
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art until 15th January 2017
Written by Clayton Press, a US-based Contributor to Arteviste.com