Pipilotti Rist at Hayward Gallery, London

by Beverley Knowles, October 2011

At first glance Pipilotti Rist’s work appears playful, a little absurd. On one level it is all of these things, on another it engages a meaningful investigation into what creates barriers and the ways in which those barriers may be peaceably transgressed. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s assertion that a serious philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Rist is a video artist whose working method is to break boundaries in terms of both the content and presentation of her work. There is an atmosphere of something deeply imaginative, free from the usual ways of being in and perceiving the world. “I tend to feel the video pieces inside myself,” the artist reveals. In this exhibition one has to engage the works as much through one’s body as through one’s intellectualizing mind.

I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) is a five minute video played inside a conical structure protruding aggressively from the wall by several meters and into which one must insert one’s head via one of several holes. The encasement is entitled, significantly, A Peak Into The West—A Look Into The East. The film shows what appears to be a semi-clad Rist frantically gyrating her body as though in ecstasy, chanting the words of the works title. The film speeds up, slows down, speeds up again, the image is variously distorted, the time continuum illusion well and truly manipulated.

As with mantra, the repetition of a single phrase over and over eventually tricks the discursive mind into releasing its tight grip on our experience of the world and for a few moments the body is revealed as existential mediator. Conversely, at that moment, the viewer’s body is outside his experience of this world of the girl who doesn’t miss much. His head is tucked safely inside the cone, his body elsewhere, missing. A sensation of dislocation arises and the viewer is estranged from the exposing corporeality of the body’s very apparent and very alarming impermanence.

Blue Bodily Love Letter and Red Bodily Love Letter are two films that focus on the body, this time as the camera travels over a naked female form. For Rist, the female body symbolizes not so much sexuality, but humanity—innocence and a sense of coming home to oneself. These two works concern themselves with the physicality of love. Rist points out that in German to fall in love is verliebenLiebe translates as love but comes from the verb lieben, which means literally to embody. The German-speaking world then recognizes, in the very structure of its language, that love arises and takes place within the body. Far from being a dangerous, contaminated place, the body is the very source of all that is good.

If the viewer seeks to interpret Rist’s work on a purely intellectual or theoretical level he may find it lacking. Such a lack is not inherent in the work but in the method of engagement. This work gives most when it is engaged in the manner in which it was created: through a sensory, real-time investigation into the body. It seems to suggest that by embracing the wisdom and vulnerability of our bodies we may go beyond our corporeal, existential fear and thereby break down some of the barriers standing in the way of joyful interrelationship.

Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage
28 September 2011–8 January 2012
Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre, London