The current princess of the zeitgeist is Pipilotti Rist, a winsome Swiss artist who is well known in Europe and is now having her first solo exhibit in New York. Her installation and video pieces at the Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea are attracting a great deal of attention, in part because they seem to represent something larger than one artist’s take on the world. Rist is bringing together many of the dominant notes in contemporary art, as if to announce, This is the way we are now. Moreover, she does so in a way that’s unfailingly entertaining; she emerged from the worlds of rock and MTV and, at the age of 38, knows how to woo her audience. The question, of course, is whether the aura of significance around her work is the result of a stylish sleight-of-hand, one providing an illusion of depth. Does her work, in other words, reflect something more abiding than the passing fashions in today’s art world?
The centerpiece at Luhring Augustine is a madcap installation called Himalaya’s Sister’s Living Room, in which the artist crowds the walls with large images of rooms decorated, mostly, in a campy fifties style. These walls enclose a space cluttered with a vast assortment of actual doodads, knickknacks, and pieces of period furniture that viewers can wander among. A pink stuffed doggie stands behind a chair. Lamps in the worst possible taste, rugs that are too interesting, starfish, plastic flowers, petrified wood and poetical rocks, old toy trucks, piles of magazines and books. At certain places, Rist projects moving images – as if the objects themselves are sparking a reverie. Among the containers of Chinese takeout on a table, viewers can watch a bicyclist dressed like a circus performer pedaling along a street; against one wall, a naked man strides along an empty Autobahn. The room seems alive: a repetitive, hypnotic, and catchy little riff of music echoes around the space. The pièce de résistance is a curvy fifties bar, which has its own light system and a corny old martini shaker on the counter. Here, Rist actually bottles the genie of video. Film loops – one of a soccer game, another of a landscape – play inside three of the liquor bottles. I’ll have some video on the rocks, please.
Taken as an ensemble, the room conveys a kind of visual delirium. It’s a tchotchke-filled hell that should deliver connoisseurs of kitsch into a state of bliss. It should equally please the academic art world, for the room can almost be read the way a graduate student reads a deconstructionist text; the various strains of feeling in contemporary art are readily excavated. Numerous artists during the past two decades, for example, have attempted to convey a sensation of overstuffed pop – of information overload and the glut of things, things, things in today’s society. They bring to art a fetishistic desire to collect: to do something with the unending flow of material. At the same time, many have recoiled into a Zen-like minimalism and emptying-out. Rist recognizes this, too, adding a few references to the modern purities in her room (some images of high modernist architecture, a couple of allusions to Buddhism). Above all, works of art must convey flux, movement, jitteriness. Because that’s how we are.
Like many postmodernists who have seen it all, Rist displays an intense nostalgia for origins, beginnings, and states of innocence. For artists her age, the period after World War II often serves as a touchstone. The walls and objects in Rist’s living room do not reflect a gray flannel version of the conformist fifties, nor do they present a tidy academic understanding of the time. Instead, they celebrate a kind of monkey-cage modernism. The fifties and early sixties become the riotous, often outlandish origins of our contemporary world, which emerged after the war. In this context, the kitsch of the period seems as imaginative and blameless as a child. And to be innocent of taste is one of the great dreams of the jaded postmodern eye.
The longing for unreachable origins often leads, in turn, to reveries about paradise and the sensual delights of the body. Here, too, Rist has a deft touch. It goes without saying that she makes great use of narcissism; no self-respecting artist of this period could live without that particular reflecting pool. And like many of her contemporaries, she conveys a deep unease about the body. Yet she is subtler and more ambivalent than most. The flesh in her work often has charm. The body is the main element in the video works on either side of Rist’s living-room installation. At the gallery entrance, she projects a flickering video of her naked form lying on wet ground against a sterile white kitchen; the soundtrack is a rainy, dripping noise. The body is beautiful – but also, perhaps, lifeless. It is a poignant juxtaposition, the wet and erotically alive shape splashed across the cold grid of the modern European kitchen. In I Couldn’t Agree With You More, the camera remains loosely fixed upon a billboard-size version of Rist’s head as her body moves through a dull day. We see her on a tram, in her apartment, at the supermarket. She stares blankly ahead. She has an appealing face, bleached blonde hair, and cat eyes, which are mostly unblinking and frozen in a kind of Warholian deadpan. (But Rist cannot help releasing flickering bits of expression.) Throughout, a little thought video plays around her forehead and eyes – we see an impish, naked, goofy Adam and Eve scampering about and peering out from behind a frond. We dream of paradise at the fruit counter.
Rist isn’t a groundbreaker who changes art in a fundamental way, as Nam June Paik did when he brought TVs into art. Instead, she is a witty and fluent synthesizer in full command of the style of her period. She reminds me of a late-Baroque artist who can do all the flourishes. At the same time, her work does not become slick, because she brings such a distinctive personal note to bear. A sly sense of humor, for example, when she adds a life preserver to the wall just past the bar in Himalaya’s Sister’s Living Room, or when she spoofs contemporary narcissism by placing a video camera inside the gallery toilet bowl so that viewers can admire their performance. (Several child critics at the gallery gave two thumbs up to this particular work of art.) Most important of all, she can keep more than one idea, sensation, and feeling in her head at a time. In a tape loop in the living-room installation, she projects the image of an old television on two kitschy landscapes. A fire consumes the TV and the landscapes. The loop reverses and we settle back into kitsch and TV – and then the fire returns, again and again. It’s a telling juxtaposition, this pairing of boredom and renewal, passion and trash.