PIPILOTTI RIST: EYEBALL MASSAGE

28 Oct

Hayward Gallery, London, 28th September 2011-8th January 2012

Pipilotti Rist (whose work appealed to me at this year’s Venice Biennale) is now the subject of a retrospective at the South Bank including dozens of video and performance works going back to the late Eighties. Personally I’d find such a prospect horrifying if it was my work: who wants everyone to see the dodgy things they were doing as a kid twenty or thirty years ago? Unless it’s all been downhill from there, obviously, in which case you probably should rest on those early laurels and hope that nobody notices you’ve made anything new because your new stuff is nowhere near as good. Unfortunately this happens, too. I’m not saying that Rist’s new work is crap, I think it’s quite the reverse in fact: I just mean that if she’d died or her video making arm had been amputated in a freak museum of modern art accident or something so she’ll never make a film again, then there might be some justification for the context provided by showing some of her juvenilia. Her old stuff has not aged well at all, though. Some of it made me cringe on her behalf but presumably she doesn’t care or she’d have omitted it, so good for her I suppose if she’s been brave and decided that we must see her entire career, warts and all.

Her appearances in her own works suggest that she’s an absolute nutter who seems to have more than a passing acquaintance with psychedelic drugs, which locates her a very long way from the pomposity and arid conceptualism that’s the boring norm in video art. In fact she seems to do exactly what she wants without much regard for looking cool, for art world orthodoxy or for standing apart from her own ideas. She seems very willing to embrace her own ridiculousness and narcissism. That’s both admirable and much too unusual in performance and video art.

‘Lobe of the Lung’ and ‘Administrating Eternity’ are overtly trippy environments, complete with floor cushions that encourage visitors to turn up, tune out and drop off. Above all a cheeky, silly sense of humour pervades everything here, including the exhibition’s title. Lights made of underpants form a chandelier; even more amusingly Rist has festooned the outdoor environs of the Hayward with strings of knickers that light up at night, which must be one of the few times that anyone has somewhat succeeded in humanising those sterile, Brutalist South Bank walkways that always feel to me like they’ve bled through from some parallel universe of Ballardian desolation.  Or Milton Keynes, which amounts to the same thing.

Silliness is everywhere presented with a tongue-in-cheek gravitas. In ‘Suburb Brain’ a family placidly tucks into their lunch, apparently unfazed by the fact that all their food is on fire. ‘Ever Is Over All’ projects bucolic images of flowers combined with footage of a woman merrily using one of those flowers to smash the windows of parked cars, with the smirking collusion of a passing policewoman or traffic warden. Both these works and others in the show deliver their points painlessly, without Rist feeling the need to drop an anvil on your head.

With my professional eye engaged, ‘Eyeball Massage’ is also a great example of how to show lots of video in one space without  repetition and without the whole thing degenerating into a visual and aural dog’s dinner. Works are well separated when they need to be and yet occasional bleed-throughs add to the whole experience. Lighting levels are sensible, so nobody is blundering around in the dark. No bullshit artspeak appears anywhere, at least not that I saw or was aware of. What a contrast with the pretentious drivel and disastrous staging of video works in the Hayward’s own British Art Show from earlier this year.

I wish there were more tripped-out weirdos like Pipilotti Rist.

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