On Friday, pioneering spatial video artist Pipilotti Rist joined Penny Stamps Speaker Series director Chrisstina Hamilton in conversation. The event was organized in partnership with the 59th Ann Arbor Film Festival and was broadcast live on YouTube.
During the event, Rist matter-of-factly compared humans to nature but also implied that humans must understand their sensory desire — that is, what we crave in our minds and bodies — in combination with what is natural to our environment. “Humans are no different than nature — there is no separation between them,” she said.
“The eye is nature’s camera,” she added, further alluding to her view that humans and their technologies are inextricable from that backdrop. Her installations salvage our connection to the beauty of nature by ceaselessly connecting the two. That could mean projecting fractals onto the viewer’s body in an installation, or juxtaposing human violence, like a video of Rist smashing car windows, with the camera’s exploration of miniature worlds contained in blades of grass. Further, Rist emphasized throughout the talk that while we are little more than bodies, we have the distinct privilege of being human.
Hamilton had introduced Rist by explaining how Rist’s multimedia art rapidly adapted through four decades of technological innovation and change. They argued that instead of viewing change as disruption, the audience can observe how adaptation transforms that disruption into art and ambience. Rist showed how connecting to the audience through technology, by facilitating interaction with the work, could add dimension to the art.
Rist described how her rudimentary, flattening videotapes became installations projected onto walls and audience members. She showed the audience how she did so through her projections of a diptych whose components were separated by the corners of an otherwise empty room. She found that the angles in the corners between walls created a natural divide between multiple images and films.
On one wall, the camera spun into glistening tulips while on an adjacent wall, a video of captured Rist smashing car windows on a busy street. Passersby in the video hardly registered the action — at one point, a cop who observed Rist’s criminal act shook her hand. I wondered if other audience members were pondering this as a symptom of her white privilege. Did Rist herself see the connection? It wasn’t clear either way.
Hamilton and Rist discussed how these installations became more attuned to sensory experience over the decades.
“The biggest impetus was to escape the square form,” Rist explained, referring to how her diptych projections metamorphosed into more interactive spaces over time. “There is no reason that the square is there. I wanted to open up the architecture, to open up the corner.”
When Rist shared another sample of her work from the 1980s, I wasn’t impressed. Bars of static sliced through a woman’s face on the screen. As the tape gradually fast-forwarded, a distorted voice that sounded like a woman lamenting an “ah” for the dentist merged with a video of Rist careening and gallivanting haphazardly, still at eye level.
I wasn’t compelled by any of these initial samples of Rist’s work. I wasn’t convinced by her portrayal of the human condition, either. It didn’t seem to me that this earlier work was anything more than a meek attempt to take cues from performance art as a whole and to wield its power without force. I didn’t see anything more in Rist’s earlier work than one woman immortalizing the mundane simply because she could.
Yet I became somewhat rapt when her work plunged headlong into the body. I began to feel as if the body wasn’t a body but a machine built from its senses — touch, taste and the dry, earthy smell of pavement in summertime mingling with dampness.
Rist’s work often engages the bodies of its subjects and the audience without language. For example, it allows nature’s patterns and the heat of light to rest in angelic halos on the human lap. It felt startling to imagine being in the room with the audience and experiencing heat in my lap alongside them, especially because this wasn’t a Zoom room but a live video with no interactive components.
It is for this reason that I felt dislocated when Rist unpacked one particular installation for the invisible Art & Design audience. Rist encouraged audience interaction by projecting hot lights infused with designs onto chairs. Rather than being invited to glare into a void, the audience members had been invited to sit and experience the heat of the design projection patterns spread across their laps. What Rist succeeds in is melding the natural with the psychological through her manipulation of shifting perspectives.
“This is also a psychological thing. We can only understand each other when we try to take the same position,” Rist said, referring to the ways that understanding can be shaped by viewing each other’s experiences at eye level.
Finally, Rist’s work suggests that we should dispel with the body altogether to cultivate a heightened, more intimate awareness of ourselves as a species. She highlighted for the audience the ways that the word “person” is “linked to the notion of the persona,” which she added can mean a kind of “sounding through.” Rist captures the body outside of its contrived performances by individuals and attempts to capture the face behind the mask through her isolation of body parts juxtaposed with nature.
The final piece of work that Hamilton and Rist discussed consisted of the concatenation of close-up images of the well-worn hands of male farmers, which Rist said came from a fledgling idea she had for invoking tender masculinity. I was finally able to see the concrete side of Rist’s aesthetics through her tender regard for hands. She narrated their perceived tenderness as they appeared in various states of repose, with their worn creases forming a stark contrast with the droop of plants in their grasp.
“These images deal with the tenderness of the male … their tactile intelligence … how their hands touch things without breaking,” Rist said in summary of these images.
“The person we are is the person sounding through the mask we have as a face,” she said finally. Indeed, Rist wears many masks, but it would help if one was able to penetrate any of them.
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.