View of “Pipilotti Rist,” 2011.

View of “Pipilotti Rist,” 2011.

Pipilotti Rist

View of “Pipilotti Rist,” 2011.

Neither tenderness nor roominess are states of being that should expect to survive in the hostile environment of Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts. The Wexner has no rooms, its architect having rejected this spatial category as rooted in bourgeois notions of inhabitation, and does not tolerate affect of any kind. Antagonism was essential to Eisenman’s effort to eradicate those sentiments and habits of use that condemn architecture to affirming falsely universalizing humanism and proscribing fixed patterns of behavior. So to find a room full of tenderness surviving in a space conceived to produce disaffection was to witness a work of visual art forging a radically new rapport with contemporary architecture.

With “The Tender Room,” an exhibition by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist (and title of its central work), affect and intellect came face-to-face this summer at the Wexner. Comprising a large number of semidiscrete elements, the show featured overlapping footage from Rist’s 2011 video of the same name, which was projected across six screens suspended from the ceiling of the last in the Wexner’s enfilade of open galleries; adhesive film, mostly pink, had been applied to the curtain wall that enclosed the viewing area; and seating elements colored and scaled to match the windows appeared to be pixels that had burst out of their plane. Fuchsia walls turned an adjacent space into an antechamber containing Cape Cod Chandelier, 2011, made from underwear stiffened by god knows what, revealing the contours of the nether regions of now-absent bodies. An unintelligible projected image bathed this fixture and leaked jagged streaks of color onto the surrounding walls. The work extended to nearby restrooms where small screens (Solution for Man and Solution for Woman [both 2011]) mounted to the ceilings showed the gushing action of urine erupting into a world of vibrant color, like projected piss paintings, an upside-down Andy Warhol meets David Reed in the men’s room.

The work’s ambitious heterogeneity derived principally from the fact that “The Tender Room” was not a room at all but rather a series of spaces strung together by a loose promenade emphasizing diversity rather than continuity of experience. For example, the contrast between the filtered museum light of the main galleries, which makes everything look good, and the bathrooms’ everyday fluorescence, which makes everything look crass, underscored the differential effects of illumination on perception and value. The tinted windows, which colored rather than blocked exterior light, and air currents that made the screens ripple destabilized the visibility of the videos. And contrasting viewing conditions and ensuing forms of attention—looking up in a bathroom, squinting to make out an image or watching a literally moving picture—highlighted the interdependence of context and experience. Together, these environmental variations indicated that the equations of artistic control with power and of imageability with value were exchanged for another currency.

Although “The Tender Room” was not a room, it engaged architecture as an artificial environment and building as a means of reshaping the technological and cultural mediation of experience. Rist did not merely install an exhibition in a generic museum; she harnessed the Wexner and its hostilities to interrogate how the relationship between buildings and bodies, and between male bodies and institutional power in particular, continues to predetermine our apperception of the world. Her tinting of the curtain wall produced the effects of a stained-glass window; the images in her film focused on Eve and her apples in paradise; the vestibule-cum-chandelier explicitly recalled a sacristy for the donning and shedding of vestments, and the ministry to body fluids in the restrooms combined to invoke the isomorphism between the body of Christ and the church as building. But in Rist’s design, He was a menstruating woman in flux, and it was her body that had been sacrificed.

If the contemporary museum has become a cultural shrine of sorts, Rist’s encounter with the Wexner did more than switch the beloved icon’s gender: It desanctified the museum by cajoling architecture into yielding its autonomy and control to the unpredictable flows of an affective environment. This intersection of two seemingly incompatible orders—Rist’s uncertain vulnerability and Eisenman’s hostile hyperrationality—catalyzed a new spatial economy generated by irreducible moments of experience to which no conventions of value can be attached.

Sylvia Lavin