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The art of Pipilotti Rist

Lap Lamp, 2006, 1 DLP LED projector, 1 flashcard SD player.

Photo Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, NY.

If you’re among the regular visitors to the Albright-Knox who wondered for months what would become of the room previously occupied by the former Collectors Gallery, wonder no more.

That unassuming glass-enclosed box tucked into the corner near the gift shop has been repurposed and rechristened as the Gallery for New Media, a catchall label capable of encompassing work in film, video, and pretty much any other time-based media. It’s a smart move, creating a self-contained space for work that is so ubiquitous in the contemporary art world. Time-based art—work that progresses in some way while it’s viewed—cohabitates uneasily with traditional media. It often demands a darkened environment, and may include audio components, moving parts, or other features that can compete for attention with nearby static work. It can also be highly experimental and challenging in nature, stretching the boundaries of visual art. By allocating a designated exhibition space for this important work, it can be safely exhibited without fear of disturbing the neighbors. It’s not a big room, though, so it’s best suited for smaller, more intimate pieces.

Such a combination of intimacy and innovation is on display through July 3 in the exhibition Pipilotti Rist: Dwelling (Within). Since the mid-1980s Swiss-born Rist has been seducing audiences with stunning works in video and mixed media that touch on issues of nature, gender, sexuality, and the human body. Surreal, sensual, and unabashedly beautiful, Rist’s work draws from a shallow well of digital tricks to achieve a wide array of arresting effects. Super-saturated colors, kaleidoscopic imagery, and extreme wide-angle close-ups frequently send viewers on macroscopic excursions through the natural world and over the human form like tiny soaring explorers on vast psychedelic expeditions. Rist relies on a canon of reoccurring iconic imagery that includes bountiful vegetation, water, references to blood vessels, and, most notably, human body parts. Humor plays a large role in Rist’s art as well. It’s hard to watch her breakout work from 1986, I’m Not a Girl Who Misses Much, without grinning at its repetitive silliness (Google it and see for yourself). She is known in recent years for her large-scale wall projections such as Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2008, in which visitors to the museum’s atrium were enveloped by a monumental display of mind-bending color and sound.

Dwelling (Within), by comparison, is more quietly reflective. It offers three separate works using household items as backdrops for video imagery. In the center as you enter is All or Nothing (alles oder nichts), comprised of a small triptych of vertically oriented LCD screens mounted together in the tradition of religious altarpieces. Below it, a wall-mounted minimalist white slab serves as an altar, topped with daily offerings of flowers, kumquats, rice, and—somewhat incongruously—a filled water cooler, the latter of which viewers are invited to make use of. The three LCD video screens display an ever-changing multicolored collage of fragmented mirror-imaged body parts.

At its loftiest All or Nothing aspires to reconcile the mind, body, and spirit, offering in the process a contemplative glimpse into our humanness. I feel compelled to mention, however, that there is a generous dollop of subversive humor at work here. The images on the screens prominently feature what the gallery’s wall text refers to as “gender-specific body parts,” but I’m inclined to call the most specific one—in the same droll spirit I think it’s intended—a swinging kaleidoscopic schwanz. So visually manipulated is the pendulous penile imagery that you have to make an effort to see its literal origins, thereby removing, or at least diminishing, lingering taboos surrounding the subject.

After meditating over a drink of water at Rist’s altar of corporeal delight, visitors can proceed to Lap Lamp, which, like the previous work, invites viewer participation. Here a floor lamp with a sunset-colored lampshade stands next to a chrome and white-padded vinyl kitchen chair. A circular video projection is focused on the chair’s seat, and viewers are invited to sit down and become part of the installation. (Tip: lighter pants work best as makeshift screens.) The projected imagery is characteristic of Rist’s work; the camera slowly glides up along what looks like a tangled mass of red extension cords suspended from a tree, reading like a reference to biological capillaries. Suddenly we’re traveling beneath leafy ground foliage from a worm’s-eye perspective. Keep in mind: If you’ve chosen to sit in the chair this is all playing out on your lap. Rist is refreshingly intuitive in her approach, often incongruously combining—as she does here—popular culture with a glimpse of the sublime.

The final and most impenetrable work in the show is Enlight My Space (Erleuchte [und klaere] meinen Raum). Arranged on a four-foot-long wooden bookshelf, this collection of books, artificial flowers, a human heart model—another reference to the circulatory system—and assorted bric-a-brac beckons viewers in for close inspection. At a distance, light seems to emanate from the vertically stacked books on the left. Moving closer, viewers discover the light source: Another video furtively cast onto the innermost book’s back cover.

Rist has been quoted as saying, “…now [that] we’ve explored the whole geographical world, pictures or films are the new, unexplored spaces into which we can escape.” In this tiny projected video, Rist offers a familiar world turned on its head (literally, in the case of an inverted cow pasture). We float through intensely colored autumn maple leaves and follow alongside a squirrel as it scurries down a road. Raindrops on a car windowpane form tiny lenses that capture the forest behind it, while meadows of Crayola-green grass are superimposed with mystical beads of light like glowing plankton. Many of the images here reoccur throughout Rist’s oeuvre: Distorted underwater shots; an arm reaching for a bobbing apple; verdant plant life; a forest landscape surrealistically dotted with bright red plastic balls.

Several more upright books sandwiched between stone bookends to the right form a valley of sorts in the shelf’s center. Here a medical text lies open to a page on childbearing. Arranged around this are an assortment of small items including crystals, beads, a magnet, dollhouse furniture, and a tarot card. A tiny plastic man seemingly photographs an equally minuscule woman perched on a toy rhinoceros.

Pinned to the wall above are a couple of clear plastic vacuformed internal organ forms and a postcard of flowers. The items reference everything from alchemy to science to the human body and spirit. Book titles such as The Face of Human Rights and The Daring Book for Girls add more layers of intrigue. Tempting as it is to assign specific meaning to these objects, it’s more likely they are broad signifiers of our quest to comprehend—as the show’s title implies—the internal and external places we inhabit. In Rist’s world, both are experienced viscerally.

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