New York

Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

Pipilotti Rist

New Museum

Pipilotti Rist, Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

It was Heraclitus who said that you never step in the same river twice: The world is fluid, and the only constant is change. The metaphor is a fitting one for the challenge of organizing an artist’s retrospective—especially if that artist is Pipilotti Rist, whose works submerge us in the aesthetics of the aqueous and the currents of technological advancement.

The earliest works in this show, which was organized by Massimiliano Gioni, Margot Norton, and Helga Christoffersen and remains on view until January 15, date to the mid-1980s, when the Swiss-born Rist was a musician and student, first of applied arts in Vienna and then of video in Basel. She began working with video as a means of making projections for live bands, and the close relationship between image and sound—which were conjoined in analog video, but are now indistinguishable in digital code—remains a major aspect of her work. Her breakthrough was the 1986 video I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, in which she sings the titular words, paraphrased from a Beatles song, while dancing with her dress pulled below her breasts. Rist made the tape in the spirit of deadpan ’70s performance video, then distorted its speed and color using of-the-moment editing techniques; the result is a bizarre warping of time, space, and language that feels like hysteria. The correlation of technology and altered states has been her theme ever since.

Like most of Rist’s early single-channel works, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much arguably belongs on a TV screen, given its obvious dialogue with representations of women in mainstream media. But these videos have also been shown as large projections, especially at museums and moving-image festivals (her work Open My Glade [Flatten], 2000, now displayed on the museum’s lobby window, was originally shown on a giant monitor in Times Square). Here, many of them are displayed on screens encased in hoodlike constructions that force us into a solitary and immobile confinement, replacing the social and embodied spectator with something more like the disembodied (and depoliticized) eye of Greenbergian modernism.

This model of spectatorship is refuted by the rest of the show, beginning with two two-channel videos, Sip My Ocean, 1996, and Ever Is Over All, 1997. These are projected into a corner, marking Rist’s epochal turn toward an expanded image, one that occupies or intervenes in architectural space. In the former, people bob and everyday objects drift under a watery surface while Rist sings, and then screams, the words to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”; the image is mirrored across the corner, enhancing the sense of visual rhythm. The latter—her best-known work, recently imitated by Beyoncé—follows a smiling ingénue as she smashes car windows with a flower-shaped poker, opposite footage of blossoms swaying in the wind.

Viewed in succession, these two videos suggest an ambivalence about using sex or violence to satisfy our need for communion: As the Isaak song says, maybe we “don’t want to fall in love,” and the destruction of property, while an expression of agency and refusal, is here neither communal nor strategic. An alternate proposal appears on the third and fourth floors, where large installations with carpeting, pillows, and beds compel us to relax together in the therapeutic bliss of aesthetic experience. As in many of her works, Rist’s use of architectural scale and enlarged, fluid imagery collapses the distance between viewer and image, subject and object: the self, it turns out, is water-soluble.

Suspended in this ocean of video, the viewer may find it hard to appreciate the comparative radicality of Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016, an installation of three thousand computer-controlled LED lights hung from the ceiling and encased in handmade resin shells. Like the sculptures of Group Zero and the Tree of Souls in Avatar, this shimmering “forest” is an offspring of the marriage of nature and technology. (Rist herself compares the work to the brain’s synapses; underwater flotsam also comes to mind.) It’s not always obvious, but the ever-shifting color pattern of the lights is tied to the nearby videos, whose flat projections are exploded algorithmically into the dimensional matrix of LED “pixels.” If the self is washed away in all of this digital flow, so too is the unified plane of the pictorial field.

Tina Rivers Ryan