New York

Pipilotti Rist

That the opening of Pipilotti Rist’s “Heroes of Birth”—the artist’s third solo exhibition at Luhring Augustine—coincided with both fashion week and the ninth anniversary of the events of September 11 is perhaps no more than that: coincidence. But given Rist’s attention to the twin towers in her 2004 outing for the gallery (at the time, she described the show, titled “Herbstzeitlose,” as embodying a kind of offering to a New York that still felt to her on its knees), it’s hard not to think of the events of 2001 as forming a kind of backdrop here as well. In fact, the connection verges on being explicit in the first piece viewers encountered, an altar accompanied by a three-screen video depicting schematic, abstract images of the body and titled All or Nothing (all works 2010). As for fashion week, Rist effortlessly presented her particular brand of foil, insisting on a visual pleasure uncouthly laced with kitsch neither ironic nor insincere. Massachusetts Chandelier, for instance, located in the rear gallery, comprised a massive lamp adorned with a variety of used knickers harvested by the artist from family and friends.

The centerpiece of Rist’s show, Layers Mama Layers, was a kind of stage set, an abstract pastoral that offered a strange respite from the environs of New York in early September. Rist filled the gallery with hanging swaths of thin, translucent fabric, through which visitors were encouraged to walk; a sound track, washing over the space, included various over-the-top nods to tranquil country life: blustery mountain wind, atonal rhythms of a music box, and the like. Multiple projections shone on and through the hanging material, shifting and shuttling along with those unstable screens, and crisscrossing one another as well as momentarily mounting the bodies of viewers making their way through the whole. These depicted unabashedly bucolic scenes, at once clichéd and actual, mostly tracking the activities of a herd of sheep living high in the Swiss Alps (indeed, in point of fact, on the artist’s uncle’s farm). Given the shifting scales and angles of the projections, a viewer watching for any length of time encountered the herd in a number of ways: from a slight distance, so it appeared as a mass of bodies furry with wool; and up close and personal, with individual sheep gazing uncannily into the camera and thus staring back, with magnified eyes, at those watching them on Rist’s screens. In one instance, the camera runs alongside and then behind a lamb, which scampers and bucks, as if trying to outpace its gaze.

If my description above makes the work sound sweet, it is, but as with the best of Rist’s installations, something hard to describe undoes that effect just as it is activated. For all the seeming personality of the sheep, they are also consistently shown as a throng, indistinguishable from one another and sporting seared-in brands that underscore their status as commodities. There are, of course, a couple of “black sheep” within the otherwise white bunch, about which one could say plenty or just leave as an observation. Furthermore, Rist has integrated digital effects into the piece, and though these are a new element for her, the result looks interestingly already obsolete. Swirling circles that superficially evoke tropes of “the cosmos” or “space,” they are as schematic and overdetermined as the sheep.

In a recent interview, Rist discussed her affinity for Georgia O’Keeffe, whose flower paintings, the younger artist felt, were most important for their ability to offer up, at once, a multiplicity of meanings. She quotes O’Keeffe as saying, “I want to force New York people to look really closely again.” Watching legions of gallerygoers push their way through Rist’s scrims—their bodies hosting projections that momentarily rendered them (or perhaps illuminated them as) just part of the herd—I couldn’t help but think of those ungulates in the Alps.

Johanna Burton