“The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do
I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you
And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you”
–Chris Isaak “Wicked Game”
I drool when I nap. Yep. It’s not pretty, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but as Mariah Carey slurred in her New Year’s eve performance/art/train wreck, “it is what it is.”
Yesterday, that over-salivation both almost killed me and gave me inspiration. I dreamed I was drowning. While I couldn’t breathe in reality, in my mind, I was immersed underwater with a slow, rhythmic, Rorschach-like imagery. A bikini-sporting body appeared and disappeared in spurts of bubbles, a beaded heart sank to the bottom of the sea and a childlike voice, reminiscent of Björk, crooned Chris Isaak’s heartbroken “Wicked Game.”
Was this a hallucination? Heaven? Paradise? Or all a dream (yes)? Well, after I woke up, gasping for air, I realized I was visited by Pipilotti Rist’s video Sip My Ocean. My subconscious, apparently, told me I had to write about Rist’s work. OK, FINE…
Luckily, the spirits visited me while Rist’s expansive survey exhibition Pixel Forest is still on view at the New Museum. The exhibition spans three floors of the museum and the lobby, where Rist’s video Open My Glad (Flatten) stuns passersby with an enormous projection of Rist’s face smashed against the New Museum’s front windows. Even when you know it’s there, it’s startling.
With dreamlike imagery of shimmering leaves, flowing water, sensuous lips and open thighs throughout the exhibition, Rist’s Pixel Forest depicts how the Swiss artist presents a glimpse into a feminist utopia through a combination of technological innovation, an embrace of the body both external and internal and nature. Sure, Rist’s work is undeniably idealistic and quite saccharine. I mean, even dirty underwear is turned into a sensual light show in Massachusetts Chandelier. Her feminism isn’t the “dismantle the patriarchy!” version of feminism. Instead, that critique is implicit in her imaginings of another, more feminized world.
And thankfully, she let’s us inhabit it, even for just a short while. She does this, in most of her installations, by manipulating the viewer’s encounter with the work. In many of the installations including Mercy Garden, Worry Will Vanish Horizon and yes, Sip My Ocean, Rist encourages viewers to lie down on a soft plushy carpet covered in pillows.
In an interview with Massimiliano Gioni in the catalogue for Pixel Forest, Rist explains her manipulation of the viewers’ experience. She says, “I think there are different forms of empowerment and I want to give them power, but on their own terms. With my exhibitions I want to provide a stage and let the visitors become the actors. Oftentimes I only slightly change their body positions, free them of the permanent fight against gravity, or invite them to take their shoes off or hide their bodies in front of the other visitors. Such fine alterations have enormous influences on our capacity for contemplation” (69).
And she’s right. Take, for example, Sip My Ocean, which is split into two monumental screens. The viewers’ experience of the video is entirely more intimate than if they were sitting bolt straight on an uncomfortable museum bench. Instead, lying on pillows (and ignoring the grotesque OCD nightmare of pillows covered in the sweat, hair and skin of countless other visitors), it appears womblike, sensual and mesmerizing. The video envelops the senses, producing a strangely calm, contemplative and yes, utopic feeling.
Rist toys with the viewers’ experience even more in her new installation 4th Floor To Mildness. Transforming the museum’s fourth floor into a combination of an IKEA showroom and a planetarium, the installation features beds positioned in the center of the room with amorphous blob-like screens attached to the ceiling, showing swirling underwater footage. Is this mildness what we’re looking for when we talk about utopia? Maybe so. I can’t think of a better form of utopia than a space of total peace.It should be said that not all of Rist’s work employs these hallucinatory, relaxation strategies to send viewers into a reverie. Shown in bizarre triangular singular viewing pods, her early videos like I’m Not A Girl Who Misses Much or You Called Me Jacky from the late 1980s and early 1990s employ a glitch-y home video aesthetic that reminds me of music videos from that era such as PJ Harvey’s “50 Ft Queenie” with her crooked smile, heart-shaped face and copious quick-cuts. Instead of watery psychedelics, Rist’s early videos project a more aggressive yet no less feminist vision.
However, Rist’s idyllic aesthetic must have struck a nerve. The New Museum recently referred to the show on their Facebook page as their “most popular exhibition ever.” And there’s no question why. It was the right show at the right time to provide the right type of salve to our deep emotional wounds after the horror of the election. Who, after the past year, hasn’t wanted to go sit in the dark on pillows or a bed, tune in, tune out and drop out?
Now, I know what you’re thinking, faithful Filthy Dreams readers, the utopian impulse seems a tad at odds with our dumpster fire national politics. And on one hand, I tend to agree. After the election, I started to question and blame queer theorists for spending so much goddamn time harping on queer utopia while fascism was on the rise in our country. Where’s your utopia now, huh?
What artistic visions of utopia seem to offer, though, is a chance not only at momentary escape, but a glimpse, a feeling, and experience of another world. In Rist’s case, this includes a more whimsical, feminist world.
In their collection The Feminist Utopia Project, which feels even more necessary now, Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff collected essays from a number of writers, activists and other notable women on their views of utopia. In their introduction, Brodsky and Kauder address the apparent division between utopian thinking and practical politics. “The value of utopian thinking isn’t uncontroversial in social justice circles,” they admit, “We started the project cautiously, knowing form our own organizing experiences that the quest for radical purity can come at the expense of addressing the urgent, ugly realities on the ground” (7).
But, the duo saw an importance in envisioning a better future. “For us, caring for today and tomorrow are intertwined. To build this future, we must envision it first. Even as we strategize for the realities of today, we must picture where we are headed and summon the hope to continue moving. Plus, in its own way, dreaming itself is an act of rebellion right here, right now. By simply imagining and claiming a right to a better, freer life, women reject the lives we are allowed and the people we are allowed to be,” they observed.
They ask, “So how can we propose new ways of living when misogyny fogs even our imaginations?” Rist seems to offer an answer: create an entirely fantastical feminine aesthetic. Take, for example, PickelPorno (Pimple Porno), which Rist sees as an attempt to depict female eroticism with swirling, unfixed sexualized images, bodies and random superimposed flowers that remind me of a Deee-lite video. It is anti-hegemonic and anti-patriarchal even though it’s still fun-loving and a tad goofy.
Rist herself sees a utopian impulse within her work. Asked by Gioni in the exhibition catalogue about her investigation into utopia, she says, “Of course, yes, in my work I imagine a lot of new possible ways of being: I imagine that life would be better if we didn’t have two genders, but perhaps twenty different ones, so that they wouldn’t be so important or the source of so much pain. I imagine that women could have the same space and authority as men. I imagine women as Vitruvian men: I imagine that hey can be themselves and also represent humanity. And I think my work is an attempt at making visible the way we feel and exist within ourselves…”(70-71).
This is not to say Rist’s world is free of anger. Heck, there’s even an iPhone featuring a video of Rist screaming in a lake of fire. However, it should be noted that this easily missable piece is hidden on a back staircase, sequestered away from Rist’s main room utopia.
My favorite, and perhaps Rist’s most famous video (at least now), is Ever Is Over All. Shown on the same split screen as Sip My Ocean, Ever Is Over All provides a perfect balance of fantasy and feminine anger. A woman skips down a quaint European street holding a long-stemmed flower called a Red Hot Poker. While there’s a whimsical humming tune playing during her foray down the street, it is occasionally broken by the ear-piercing sound of the woman bashing in car windows. Yes, if that sounds familiar, Beyoncé is rumored to have been inspired by this video for her own “Hold Up.” Although rather than a clit-resembling flower, Beyonce uses a baseball bat to shatter windows.
On the right side of the screen, those same long flowers are shown flowing in the breeze, perfectly peaceful. Though the left screen is undoubtedly more violent, that doesn’t mean that it’s not equally as utopian. In one shot, the woman passes a female police officer who grins at her antics (I wonder if Beyoncé, a woman of color, would be given that same politeness and freedom–I doubt it).
Also the woman is dressed like Dorothy, with a blue dress and ruby red slippers. With this outfit, Rist indicates that this isn’t, in fact, reality. This is Oz–another world when a woman can act out her anger without punishment, social rejection or retribution of any kind. In Janet Mock’s contribution to The Feminist Utopia Project, she imagines, as the essay is titled, “The Free Girl Who Is Everything.” She writes, “The free girl with love being her birthright, liberation being her mission, and self-realization being her quest is my vision for an ideal society…. The free girl will walk down a crowded street in the daytime–unnoticed” (327).
In many ways, the woman depicted in Ever Is Over All is Mock’s free girl–a woman free from social mores, strictures, rules of behavior and misogyny. Though we can’t take her with us outside the museum, viewers should just be happy just to witness and bask her freedom firsthand.