Cover Pipilotti Rist

The celebrated video artist urges us to get comfortable in our own skin—and do the same for others

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist had a revelation during quarantine about her workout habits. “I’m going to train naked; that’s my thing for the future. I hate the feeling of sweat sticking to my skin; why do we need clothes? There’s less to wash this way too.” This won’t be the last time we talk about nudity.

While some people were driven to distraction during their three weeks of Hong Kong government-mandated quarantine, Rist found it to be oddly valuable. “I thought I would just be jumping around like a wild dog waiting to be let out, but I’ve actually learnt some good things,” the artist tells Tatler over video chat from her hotel room on her last day of quarantine. 

That didn’t stop her from heading straight from quarantine to a site visit to test the video projections for her upcoming show Behind Your Eyelid. “There’ll be this kind of ‘wonder-light’ that caresses the bodies of people, dogs and even trees,” she says of the effect of the new works she’s creating for the show, one of which will be projected onto Tai Kwun’s publicly accessible outdoor prison yard. She is set to transform the JC Contemporary galleries into surreal settings with her signature vibrant video installations which are designed to be immersive experiences, rather than just looked at.

Rist has been a pioneering force in video art since the 1980s, known for bringing colour, wonder and scale to the medium. Her signature aesthetic features bright, saturated colours and close-up imagery of nature, surfaces and skin, with an incredible attention to detail.  “Maybe it’s because I’m so short-sighted,” jokes Rist, her bright blue eyes widening behind her circular, gold-rimmed glasses. “I always want to go closer. Even as a child when I used to watch films, I would have this illusion that if I [got up] really close, maybe I could go inside.” 

Rist’s installations are designed to stimulate all the senses, so each video has a specially composed soundtrack which combines with the zoomed-in visuals to induce a meditative effect. Visitors are meant to sit or even lie down on carpeted floors or bean bags to soak in her detailed and often slightly disconcerting imagery. Her works, such as Pixel Forest Motherboard (2016), often incorporate amorphous glowing acrylic forms which hang from the ceiling like brightly coloured lights.

For her Tai Kwun exhibition, the artist will create a similar sculptural supplement consisting of a chandelier made from different-coloured underwear, part of a 12-channel video installation Big Skin (2022). 

Nudity has been pervasive throughout Rist’s body of work and further hints at her obsession with skin. Earlier in her career, the artist would appear nude in her videos herself, as it was “easier and cheaper” than hiring a model. The artist’s aim, though, is less provocation than a desire to show what is authentic and liberating; her depictions of nakedness aren’t always blatant, sometimes due to a blurry or zoomed-in aesthetic and choices of perspective.

Take, for example, Selfless in a Bath of Lava (1994), one of Rist’s most popular and acclaimed works, most recently exhibited at MoMA PS1, New York. The artist is featured nude from a top-down perspective, revealing only her head, shoulders and arms grasping upwards, presumably surrounded by lava or what seemingly could be the fires of hell. The work is embedded in the ground, so viewers first hear her voice emanating from the floor, yelling for help, and are then forced to look down.

Here, Rist’s physical entrapment—behind the screen and in the floor—translates conceptually as being confined within established gender norms, perspectives and perceptions. Hong Kong audiences will have a chance to view the work, which will be installed in Tai Kwun’s artist library; it may find even greater resonance with local audiences who feel constricted by cramped living conditions and see public spaces as places of refuge. The idea of entrapment also reflects our increasing dependency on digital screens, which Rist seeks to challenge in bringing “the electronic image out of the machine and into the physical world”.

Rist’s desire to create immersive work extends to showcasing what is commonly deemed unattractive or unappealing: she features faces pressed against windows, so that wrinkled and blemished skin, pores, pimples and hair follicles are all put under her microscope. She has a theory about culture’s obsession with youth and smooth skin in visual industries, particularly film and fashion: there is more scope to project your own ideas and beliefs onto smooth, blank surfaces. “When you see an old person you see their wrinkles, their history, their pain, their experience—everything. But on young skin, you see a blank surface; you see possibility.” But Rist believes this should be celebrated and used to advantage. “I hope we can we appreciate aged skin as much as we do vintage furniture or old architecture—things on which history is visible.”

Born Elisabeth Charlotte Rist, the artist assumed the moniker Pipilotti in her early twenties. It is a combination of her childhood nickname, Lotti, and her childhood role model Pippi Longstocking, the star of a series of popular children’s books. Now 60, the artist still embodies Longstocking’s quirkiness, curiosity and instinct for marching to the beat of her own drum. Through her works, she intends to liberate us from deeply ingrained prejudices and pre-established perceptions, upending traditional ideas of what the feminine should be, and infusing her art with a sense of female empowerment.

Rist’s works largely have a female narrative and are created and told from a primarily female perspective, amplifying the female gaze, which Rist and her team have been instrumental in cultivating. Rist’s team happens to be almost entirely female, including her technicians, who assist her in executing the technical aspects of her installations. “I came from a generation where the males would keep the knowledge,” says Rist. “It’s crucial to have a transparent workflow—we have to share the knowledge.” She emphasises this is especially necessary in areas like technology where female representation is still severely lacking. “We can only do that [increase representation] if we have role models. It will be a good time when you don’t have to be proud of this any more and it’s just normal.”

An unintentional feminist icon, Rist is believed by many to have inspired one of the most iconic pop culture moments in recent history—Beyoncé’s video for the song Hold Up from her 2016 visual album Lemonade. The singer, clad in a yellow dress, walks down the street and then smashes car windows with a baseball bat. Similar in tone and format, this scene is said to be inspired by Rist’s Ever is All Over (1997), which won the Premio 2000 award at the 1997 Venice Biennale. In the film, a seemingly cheerful woman in a blue-green dress is walking down a street, then proceeds to smash car windows with the flower she is holding—which turns out to be made of metal.

For Rist, the relationship between art and pop culture is reciprocal. “I don’t distinguish much between high and low [art],” she says. “Influence always goes back and forth in all directions, and somehow in the end it brings us back all together and expands our horizons.”  

Rist’s own introduction to art was through pop culture. She got into The Beatles “ten years too late”, and encountered Yoko Ono’s performance art, who at the time was a part of Fluxus, the 1960s avant-garde performance art movement which sought to reject definitions of what constitutes art. One of Rist’s first works, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), which she made while she was still in college, was inspired by a line in Happiness is a Warm Gun, John Lennon’s 1968 song about Ono. In this video, a blurred, out-of-focus Rist can be seen dancing wildly wearing a low-cut dress—her breasts exposed—as she repeatedly mentions the work’s title in a comical, high-pitched voice.

In fusing mainstream references and alluring visuals with niche video art aesthetics, Rist has managed to achieve the elusive combination of critical acclaim and mass popularity. Her visually attractive experiential works are “accessible but also thought-provoking and challenging”, says Tobias Berger, curator-at-large at Tai Kwun Contemporary, outlining one of the main reasons the institution wanted to exhibit her works. In addition to her large-scale video installations, a series of small sculptures will be interspersed through the space along with site-specific installations for Behind Your Eyelid.

Rist hopes her works will serve as points for gathering, encouraging interaction and connection among viewers. “Every cultural expression ultimately is a way to show and understand the other,” says Rist, “and to understand what’s going on behind their skin and in their brain. It’s just another way to go beyond the surface.”

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