New York

Pipilotti Rist

Luhring Augustine / Public Art Fund, Times Square, New York

A WHOLE NEW INTERIOR REALM, both uncanny and funny, opened up to visitors of Pipilotti Rist's latest installations at Luhring Augustine. At first, the simulated domestic layout seemed ordinary enough: Viewers entered via a kitchen, proceeded through a living room, a bar, two other rooms, and finally on to a bathroom. Yet this was no simple house, but a fantasy site of visual and psychic projection, produced from a feminine point of view that was as intriguing as it was unexpected.

Woman in general—and Rist's own experience in particular—has always been at the core of the artist's work. From her underwater (auto)erotic fantasy Sip My Ocean, 1996, to her depiction of a woman joyfully smashing car windshields with an iron flower (Ever Is Over All, 1997), Rist's video-based productions have provided numerous examples of female insubordination. But the recent installations represented the Swiss artist's most consistent effort yet to develop an aesthetics of unfettered womanhood: The work expresses irreverence not just through pranks captured on tape but in its very form and execution, which generate a visual poetics of buoyant femininity profoundly unrelated (though not unfriendly) to masculinity—that is, released from the binary opposition of gender.

So what does femininity unbound look like? In the first installation, Regenfrau (I Am Called a Plant), 1998–99, a giant female nude was projected on a faux kitchen wall, the image hovering over sink and stove. Lying like a corpse at the water's edge, her pink-wigged head, magenta lipstick, and purple nails punctuating the soggy ground, the figure seemed at first less unbound than abandoned. Yet her body was shown in a way that subverted this sense of abjection; the moving camera, positioned up close, brushed gently against her as if it were an infant's mouth searching for its mother's nipple. In other words, in place of a controlling “male” gaze, Rist introduced the camera as a dependent, unseeing object with a groping touch. The oneiric sounds of a harmonica (all but two of the installations included their own sound track) enhanced the sight's mesmerizing peculiarity. And at a certain point in the projection, which ran in a continuous loop, the “abject” woman simply got up and left: It was time to move on to the next room.

In Himalaya's Sister's Living Room, 2000, images beamed from hidden projectors surfaced like veils of daydreams in unexpected places: on a side table, the artist's face pressing against a windowpane; behind a plant, an ear illuminated by sunlight; on a lamp, a woman gesticulating atop a snowy mountain. These animated objects recalled speaking furniture in eighteenth-century libertine novels—a sofa, for example, narrating the amorous trysts that took place on its cushions—though the iconography here was not traditionally erotic. Yet there was a kind of love in the way Rist's camera embraced its objects, producing through its gently swooping or looping trajectories a subtle and often hilarious disequilibrium, as in the volleying takes of a female cyclist's legs from below. Although the overall effect was slightly chaotic, Rist succeeded in redefining the idea of a woman's interiority precisely by interrupting and reinscribing the physical boundaries of the room and swathing it in the envelope of her own quirky imagination.

The two subsequent installations further explored the psyche as interim. Extremities (smooth, smooth), 1999, housed a galaxy of he-floating body parts that circulated in sparkling blackness, a striking effect produced by four projectors and two scanners. Simultaneously beautiful and comic, these part objects—the magenta lips, a round breast, a detumescent penis—were accompanied by a female voice-over sweetly speaking quasi-nonsensical phrases (“You are but a flower /You are different from me / I'll be like you”), summoning the fragments, and their viewers, to the polymorphous pleasures of psychic life before identification. Two looped projections in I Couldn't Agree with You More, 1999, showed Rist as a supermarket flaneuse absorbed in erotic fantasies: Images of frolicking, naked youths of both sexes appeared on her brow as she wandered the shopping aisles. Her peregrinations were registered by a camera suspended in air, its pendulum movements—Rist's trademark in this exhibition—circling around her, generating a dreamy, self-ironic mood.

The final work, Closed Circuit, 2000, transformed the gallery bathroom into a zone that made the seemingly familiar strange. An infrared camera placed inside the toilet bowl and a monitor screen in front of it enabled visitors to observe their private parts in action, confronting them with an unusual view of their own intimate spaces. With this installation, the visitor's route through the body—from mouth to anus—and the parallel imaginary journey through Rist's phantasmic house of self were both completed.

In a concurrent project titled “Open My Glade,” several videotapes commissioned from Rist by the Public Art Fund were broadcast daily on the NBC screen in Times Square. Competing against the visual cacophony of commercial Manhattan, the artist used bits of body—her made-up face squashed against glass, the cyclist's legs, the ear in sunlight—to create an odd island of corporality in the cityscape. It evoked Valie Export's 1970s bodily interactions with architecture, but Rist, whose generation thrives on MTV imagery, renders her body through the filter of mass-media representations. Despite its immersion in popular culture, however, Rist's work, like Matthew Barney's, succeeds in fleshing out a coherent aesthetic universe of its own. Both artists defamiliarize, but while Barney transmogrifies sexual difference beyond recognition, Rist devotes her energy to “unknowing” femininity. Her implicit point of reference is not a man but another woman—the Mother—under whose symbolic auspices unfolds the artist's at once doting and impudent gaze.