maria elena buszek :
Contemporary Artists. 5 ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001

Pipilotti Rist, Still from Altruist in a Lava BathCharlotte (Pipilotti) Rist (b.1962, Rheintal, Switzerland)

Since Pipilotti Rist’s effervescent, enigmatic videos and installations brought her to the attention of the international art world in the early 1990’s, she has consistently explored the interconnections of self, politics, and popular culture.  Rist’s eclectic education and experience lends logic to her poignant celebrations of mass culture; she studied commercial art, illustration, and photography at Vienna’s Institute of Applied Arts and went on to graduate work in video communications at the School of Design in Basel.  While studying, she lent her talents to video animation and stage design for local bands, eventually joining the feminist group Les Reines Prochaines as a self-taught multi-instrumentalist.  (Playing bass, flute, and percussion—in the artist’s own estimation, “all equally badly.”)  Rist unpretentiously asserts MTV among influences such as Joseph Beuys, and the technical bravura of her installations reflects a perfectionism common in commercial videos but rare in traditionally low-tech video installation.  Appalled by the arrogant isolation of the art world from popular artforms, as well as its affected disdain for joy and sincerity, she is unashamed of her populist desire “to bring people into the art ghetto.” 

Rist’s desire to merge her art and technical training with her interest in pop and punk performance led to early works like I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986)—the title of which comes from the variation on the first line of the Beatles’ song “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which the artist sings mantra like throughout the piece.  The short video presents Rist as whirling dervish, dancing maniacally in a breast baring, ripped thrift store dress, singing to a stationary camera in the fashion a child playing dress-up might unselfconsciously entertain herself in a bedroom mirror.  This breezy performance is, however, jarringly punctuated by shifts in speed that break up its visual and aural rhythms.  The video is constantly sped up to a hysterical pitch or slowed down to an ominous drawl, as if an unseen spectator were randomly controlling the monitor’s remote control to purposely confuse and irritate fellow viewers.  Simultaneously naïve and sophisticated, silly and sadistic, the work set the tone for much of Rist’s subsequent work, which would similarly transform familiar imagery, sounds, and sensations from mass culture into unique meditations on the relevance of such influences in modern identity formation.

Later works further incorporate her musical tastes and talents, as well as her childlike awe at the magical potential of television and film as everyday expressive media.  Reflecting the influence of Nam Jun Paik and Laurie Anderson, her video and film projects blend highly selective, sensual imagery and catchy musical accompaniment into accessibly complex vignettes on seemingly mundane subjects.  Her use of vivid, saturated color and penchant for open-ended, surreal narratives also betray the influence of 1960s psychedelia.  Sip My Ocean (1996) features a mirrored projection of Rist swimming in an ill-fitting yellow bikini while the artist’s falsetto voice warbles, karaoke-style, to Chris Isaak’s romantic hit “Wicked Game” on the accompanying soundtrack—its watery slide guitar particularly suitable to the otherworldly underwater imagery.  Although the artist sings of love’s bondage in the clichéd, melodramatic language of the pop tearjerker, her mugging presence on the screen instead appears unbound and carefree.  Ever is Over All (1997), an installation that earned the artist the 2000 Prize at the 1997 Venice Biennale, similarly pairs the logic of the three minute pop song with the concept of an equally fleeting, but comparatively profound state of being.  Over a funky trance beat overlaid by an Indian-flavored melody, Rist absentmindedly hums along to the tune, striding dreamily down an ordinary Zurich street with an exotic, long-stemmed flower in her hand.  Just as the audience settles into the groove of the soundtrack and follows the slow motion pace of the artist’s stroll, without changing her joyous expression Rist winds up her arm like a baseball pitcher and smashes the flower into the windows of parked cars in her path.  The only real world intercessor in this surreal scene is a female police officer who happens upon the destruction, smiles, and casually salutes before continuing past.  Altruist in a Lava Bath (1994, above)—a miniature LED screen installed in a floor crack—finds the artist parodying the stereotype of the female martyr as the artist’s tiny image and voice scream up at the viewer from the bowels of hell: “I am a worm and you, you are a flower!  You would have done everything better! Help me! Forgive me!” This quirky sense of humor and interest in insinuating installation art into surprising spaces was displayed in her 2000 public video series, Open My Glade, consisting of one-minute videos of the artist appearing to (unsuccessfully) press her way out of the Panasonic Screen at Times Square in New York City.  More recently, Rist has turned her interest in public art into a new, administrative role, serving as director of the 2001 Swiss National Exhibition in Neuchâtel.

Though focusing on optimistic, lighthearted narratives, Rist has asserted the serious and feminist aims of her work in ways that align her with like-minded, third wave feminists of her generation.  Much like the contemporary Riot Grrrl movement in the United States and England—which the artist has claimed as an influence— Rist has sought to bring feminist theory down to earth and up to date through her appropriation of popular culture and media.  As curator Nancy Spector argues, the “coquettish and rebellious” behavior of Rist’s various video incarnations suggests both an understanding and rejection of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the oppressive, ubiquitous male gaze that effectively “problematize(s) feminism’s interrogation of visual pleasure.”  Emphasizing instead the feminist potential of pleasure in its myriad forms, this aspect of Rist’s work reflects yet another interest of many of her third wave contemporaries: challenging notions that feminist art must be anti-erotic or asexual to serve the goals of the women’s movement.  Giving in to beauty and sensuality while maintaining an intellectual edge, Rist is a rare artist who mixes pleasure and politics as deftly and poignantly as she does media.

return to contemporary artists sampler