Traveling does more than transport the body into different places; it jettisons the mind into a chaotic relationship with time with the body scurrying behind. Traveling drops us into a whirlwind where the past bruises the ethereal present which passes into the future the moment you notice it. Few things invite us into the whirlwind as much as the work of Pipilotti Rist—an invitation which is as harsh as jet lag and as kind as drifting off to sleep.
Walking up a flight of stairs at the New Museum during Rist’s recent retrospective there, I found a cell phone on the ground. My impulse, after the automatic check to find my phone reveals empty pockets, is to reach down and pick the phone up. As I reach down I suddenly stop, realizing it is a video by Pipilotti playing on loop on an iPhone attached to the cement. The exhibition creates this impulse to reach out and grab what is at once familiar and at the same time lost. She creates the wonder of having found what was missing, of coming back into a sensitivity and a consciousness which we had previously misplaced. Three floors of video, sound, and color reveal our animal body receiving back to itself its dignity, its imagines, its trinkets, its pleasures, its rest, its play, its sexuality—the feeling of the lungs expanding, finally, to capacity.
Sinking into second hand beds surrounded by dark blue walls, Pipilotti’s video 4th Floor to Mildness plays on the ceiling. After a few moments the beds themselves feel like they begin to float, and we are swept away in the undercurrent of our repressed desires, needs, repulsions, and delights. The underside of leaves floating on the surface of the water, pruned hands dipping in, a breast, a penis, a dirt clod—they all bob and weave through the ripples and undulations of the water above. We are the intimate viewer to an underwater world catching glimpses of the sun up above. Held close by earth's gravity to our beds, the whole fourth floor is the passageway into the womb. As the video plays overhead Musical artist Anja Plaschg of Soap&Skin sings, “When I was a child,” and we sink further into the past, sculpting the present which leads us into the future. Time is put on a loop and we carousel around despair and rest. We fight the urge to fall asleep, or, like Pipilotti herself, to smash some glass.
A large screen plays Ever is Over All where Pipilotti bashes car windows with a large flower while a delicate close-up video of sensual flowers plays simultaneously. The two videos bleed into one another, the edges indistinguishable. To reflect on Pipilotti’s work on International Women’s Day is to think of all the women I admire who take flowers, baseball bats, and books to break through the glass windows of oppression—any barrier meant to keep us small. I think of Beyoncé, who in her visual album Lemonade, in the style of Pipilotti, smashes car windows with a baseball bat as fire explodes and children dance behind her. In a speech given the day before, Hillary Clinton said, “In big ways and small, the unfinished business of the 21st century is the full equality of women.” We feel the satisfied joy of Pipilotti and the unfettered power of Beyoncé as they smash flowers and bats into car windows. These women get to task in the unfinished business of equality. They call us to more. They call us to pick up the bat, the microphone, the flower, and to smash without shame, without apology.