New York

Pipilotti Rist

Pipilotti Rist’s new video installation, Herbstzeitlose, 2004, immersed the viewer in a multimedia bath of transcendent female power under the gaze of the Mother. Part earth goddess, part techno-banshee, Rist’s alter ego or animating idea inhabits a symbolic register in which sight, sound, and touch have never been split apart. Neither ironic nor sanctimonious, this presiding spirit assumes as the baseline of experience an enveloping, polymorphous, often lulling but sometimes scary physicality.

Rist’s vehicle in this case was a multiscreen panorama filmed in the green Swiss hills around St. Gallen, where Rist grew up. Herbstzeitlose means “meadow saffron,” a flower native to those hills. But it also translates as “autumn timeless.” Thus poised between natural detail and disjunctive eternity, the piece engulfed viewers in a paradoxically soothing hyperstimulation, gently appropriating their bodies into the perceptual furniture of the exhibition before taking them on a pleasantly demented tour in which the specifics of a kitschy Swiss childhood stand for unbounded, unlocalizable awe.

One entered the gallery through the back of a little Alpine house façade that hid the videos until one stepped through the door. Then, it seemed, one emerged from the gingerbread-shingled cottage onto the veranda of a mountainside retreat, the backlit printed panorama of hills and valleys spread as if at one’s feet. A battered table and chairs marked the “patio,” while on the floor a backlit cutout of distant mountains stood for the horizon. Above this photographic baseboard, the video flowed across two walls, panning through woods and fields. A farmer with his mowing machine flits past, then some kids playing ball, an ambulance, an antennae tower.

The diva genius loci held the right wall, a woman in traditional Alpine costume, with a heavy skirt, lace shawl, and crownlike headdress. The camera clambers about her body and wheels above her head, rummages in the folds of her dress and zooms into her mouth. As if Rist’s rural canton were the world, or the outward signs of time and place were fixed sheaths around a fluid identity, the woman shifts from white to Asian to black and back again inside her Swiss Miss outfit. Occasionally a big, bright video flower would splash across the house facade while, on a third wall, a rose-tinted lake ebbed and flowed. Suspended from the ceiling in front of the projection of the lake hung a tree branch, from which dangled clear plastic objects—a CD case; takeout containers—that cast their shadows like ethereal garbage on the sea. Accompanying all this, Rist’s soundtrack crooned and pulsated, intermixing the music of folk band Gruss vom Walensee, Rist’s son’s baby-babble, and her own trademark screech.

Each projection looped separately, the cycle lasting just under fifteen minutes. At Luhring Augustine, people stayed through several rounds, lounging in the chairs, pivoting between the various focal points, dipping their hands into the light beam that made the shadows. In the back room were three more small video constructions (all works 2004), but they were incidental and the show would have been better off without them: Herbstzeitlose was plenty on its own. Rist orchestrates a particular form of abundance that incorporates injury (the ambulance); pollution (the plastic junk); commodification (the antennae); and plain rage (the screams). But those threats are neutralized by the presence of the monumental, whirling godmother, under whose eye the vicissitudes of memory and environment harmonize but do not homogenize. She is Mistress of Warped Syntax, Our Lady of Hypnagogic Flow, and Rist has worked with her avatars for years.

What emerges in Herbstzeitlose is an emphasis on home and shelter, the reciprocity between a house, a landscape, and the body that inhabits and looks back at them. Another figure for this kind of mutual, multilayered mirroring is the communication between mother and child, a primal psychedelia that everyone has experienced, however incompletely, however long ago. Or as Rist once put it, “Every normal person is a feminist.”

Frances Richard