Pipilotti Rist’s Serene “Pixel Forest” Explores the Chaos of Our Digital Lives

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNNhong kong

In a dark room in the middle of Hong Kong, there is new respite from the bustling city. It’s a forest – though it’s nothing like the dense greenery that blankets the nearby mountains.

This one shines. The so-called “pixel forest” is made up of 3,000 LED lights, suspended by plastic cables that twist like vines, flashing red, blue, green, yellow and pink, in tandem with the music. The shiny black floor forms a glassy lake that reflects each rough, shimmering crystal, creating a kind of infinity.

Multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist’s immersive work is inspired by her experience with virtual reality glasses. Although she said she could feel the room around her, the 60-year-old “felt extremely alone”, she recalled.

Rist examines the internal chaos of our digital world through what she calls a “raw, raw virtual reality” that viewers can touch and explore. As you walk through its pixel forest, it’s hard not to imagine yourself standing inside a phone or laptop screen – or seeing some kind of beauty in this broken down and magnified version of our digital world. . The experience can help visitors recognize how easy it is to get lost in technology.

“It’s an illusion sometimes. People think, ‘Oh, we’re totally in touch,’ but actually being together (in person) is something totally different,” Rist said.

The installation is among nearly 50 of his works featured in his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, “Behind Your Eyelid,” which showcases three decades of work at JC Contemporary Gallery. In it, Rist also considers the things that separate us and the facades we need to break through to connect with each other.

“I try to bring the electronics in front of or off the screen – to bring it more into the room,” Rist said.

The light of unlikely places

Born in Grabs, Switzerland in 1962, Rist has been an integral part of the visual arts scene since the 1980s. But she unexpectedly entered mainstream consciousness in 2016, when it was suggested Beyoncé’s music video “Hold Up” was inspired by the installation “Ever is Over All”.

Beyoncé has never officially credited the artist’s 1997 work — which depicts a carefree Rist in red heels and a blue dress, skipping down a street swinging a long-stemmed red flower — as inspiration. The scene was instantly recognizable, however: a woman skipping nonchalantly down a car-lined street smashing windows, baseball bat in hand.

“Ever is Over All” (1997) is a two-channel video: one side shows fields of flowers, while the other (pictured) shows Rist jumping down a car-lined street with a flower in his hand. Credit: CNN

Rist, who creates her work in collaboration with a team of audio, light and video technicians, was flattered by the apparent nod. “I thought it was cool that people who might never go to art shows suddenly had the reference to a video artist,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t even know (‘Ever is Over All’) existed.”

The baseball bat brought a “certain aggressiveness” to the scene, Rist said – while her own flower-turned-weapon was a more playful commentary on women’s power and autonomy, a key theme in Rist’s work. Rist even speculated that she was drawn to her chosen medium, video art, because “it wasn’t taken on by men.”

While both women and men feature in his videos, the former dominate. Yet she challenges the idea that she has a preference for profiling women: “The power structure is such that we take (women) as an exception. For me, I’ve always tried to say, ‘No , it’s human.’ “

In his exhibition in Hong Kong, representations of female torsos hang from the ceiling, a Pop-Art twist on Greek and Roman sculptures. One is a stiff yellow swimsuit, with a small 90s-style TV balanced in the hollowed-out crotch, while another has light emanating from where the legs should be.

Rist’s video installation “Digesting Impressions” (1993/2013) features a looping video broadcast on a television inside a bathing suit. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

The light projected from the pools is a common motif in Rist’s art. (“That’s where we saw the light when we came out of our mothers,” she explained.) And her humor is also showcased in her slip chandelier, which plays with the double meaning of “light” meaning both to shine and to be light.

“(The basin) is contentious for us, between shame and passion and stench and joy,” Rist said, pointing to the idiom, “don’t air your dirty laundry” and what he says about the fact to keep our darkness, our problems and our struggles a secret. “I wanted to make it light.”

Peel off the layers

Across the three-story exhibition, Rist showcases his incredible range: decades-old works sit alongside new site-specific installations, while entire immersive rooms are followed by one-of-a-kind screens. In one instance, a small screen the size of a ping pong ball is embedded in the floor, showing the 1994 six-minute looping video “Selbstlos im Lavabad” (Selfless in The Bath Of Lava), featuring scene a screaming woman trapped in fiery purgatory.

Many of the pieces were created decades ago, but Rist’s art is somehow “still up to date with the latest technology,” said exhibit curator Tobias Berger. It spotlights the 1996 work, “Sip My Ocean,” a two-channel video that, in its original form, would have been played on a much smaller projector. Now the artwork takes up two walls, floor to ceiling, on a screen the size of a movie theater. Improvements in audio technology also add another dimension to the works, Berger added, “so that even the old works in each exhibition are almost new site-specific works.”

The “Central Hong Kong Chandelier” (2021) rubs shoulders with “Big Skin” (2022), blurring the banal and the fantastic. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

Originally commissioned in 2019, before the pandemic, the exhibition took two years to prepare. But Berger thinks the isolation and anxiety of Covid-19 has made the show – and its recurring theme of human connectedness – more relevant than ever. Rist herself experienced isolation while preparing for the exhibition, spending 21 days in quarantine last year in order to enter Hong Kong and get a feel for the gallery space.

Rist has created two entirely new works for the exhibition. Outside, a massive projection transforms the former prison yard in which the gallery sits into a “clearing in the city,” where Rist hopes people will gather and connect in person.

And inside, the new installation “Big Skin” connects the central metaphor of the exhibition: the membranes. Semi-translucent white “skins” hang from the ceiling, while video projections depicting galaxies and natural landscapes – a mix of live footage and animations – play across their surfaces. Like floating clouds, they absorb and emit light, casting eerie shadows even as they show calming scenes of autumnal leaves.

For Berger, the authenticity of Rist’s art is part of the charm – because, despite its surrealism, nothing is computer generated. “I think that’s what fascinates, why people are so drawn to his work: there’s nothing fake, it’s all real,” he said.

"Coloring Water Tiger Balm" (2022) is an outdoor video installation, created for the outdoor space of the JC Contemporary Gallery in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong.

“Water Tiger Color Balm” (2022) is an outdoor video installation, created for the outdoor space of the JC Contemporary Gallery in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Credit: Tai Kwun

The final room, “The Apartment”, makes a former women’s prison cell look like a home: a table and chairs, a sofa and sideboard, and a day bed, are surrounded by a jumble of intimate trinkets, many of which are from Hong Kong and a painting by a local artist. But the projections move through space like ghosts, a configuration more strange than familiar.

As in the forest of pixels, Rist immerses the viewer in a dreamlike combination of lights, colors and sounds that thwart everyday life. It gives weight to emotions and ideas and, in doing so, gives substance to the invisible lines that connect us.

“We are so much more similar than we are different,” she said.

behind your eyelidis on view at JC Contemporary in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, through November 27, 2022.

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