Pipilotti Rist’s serene ‘pixel forest’ explores the chaos of our digital lives

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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 a new reprieve from the bustling city. It’s a forest — although it looks nothing like the dense greenery that covers the nearby mountains.

This one glows. The so-called “pixel forest” consists 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, glittering crystal, creating a kind of infinity.

The immersive work of multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist was inspired by her experience using virtual reality glasses. Although she said she could feel the room around her, the 60-year-old “felt extremely lonely,” she recalled.

Rist explores the internal chaos of our digital world through what she called a “rough, raw virtual reality” that viewers can touch and explore. Walking through her pixel forest, it’s hard not to imagine yourself in a phone or laptop screen—or to see some kind of beauty in this broken-down and blown-up version of our digital world. The experience can help visitors realize how easy it is to get lost in technology.

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

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

“I’m trying to bring the electronics in front or out of the screen — to bring it more into the room,” Rist said.

Light from unlikely places

Born in Grabs, Switzerland in 1962, Rist has been a fixture on the visual arts scene since the 1980s. But she unexpectedly entered the mainstream consciousness in 2016, when it was suggested that Beyoncé’s music video “Hold Up” took inspiration from the installation “Ever is Over All”.

Beyoncé never formally credited the artist’s 1997 work — which depicts a carefree Rist in red heels and a blue dress, bounding down a street and brandishing a long-stemmed red flower — as an inspiration. However, the scene was instantly recognisable: a woman nonchalantly jumping down a car-filled street and 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 side (photo) shows Rist jumping down a car-lined street, flower in hand. Credit: CNN

Rist, who creates her work with a team of audio, lighting and video technicians, was flattered by the apparent nod. “I thought it was cool that people who might never go to art exhibitions suddenly got 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 aggression” to the scene, Rist said — while her own flower-turned weapon was a more playful comment on female 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 by men.”

While both women and men appear in her videos, the former dominates. Still, she takes exception to 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 her Hong Kong exhibition, depictions of female torsos hang from the ceiling, a Pop-Art twist on Greek and Roman sculptures. One is a tight yellow swimsuit, with a small ’90s-style television 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 looped video played on a television in a swimsuit. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

Light emerging from pelvises is a common motif in Rist’s art. (“It’s where we saw the light when we came out to our mothers,” she explained.) And her humor is also on display in her chandelier of underpants, which plays with the ambiguity of “light” meaning both shine and be lightweight.

“(The pelvis) is controversial for us, between shame and passion and stink and joy,” Rist said, pointing to the idiom, “not to air one’s dirty laundry” and what it says about keeping our darkness, our problems and our struggles, a secret. “I wanted to make it light.”

Pull back layers

Across the three-story exhibition, Rist showcases her incredible range: Decades-old works sit alongside new, site-specific installations, while entire immersive rooms are followed by single screens. In one case, 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 a screaming woman trapped in a fiery purgatory.

Many of the pieces were created decades ago, yet Rist’s art is somehow “always adapted to the latest technology,” said exhibition curator Tobias Berger. He highlights the 1996 work, “Sip My Ocean,” a two-channel video that, in its original form, would have shown on a much smaller projector. Now the work fills two walls, floor to ceiling, on a theater-sized screen. Improvements in audio technology also add another dimension to the works, Berger added, “so even the old works in each exhibition are almost site-specific new works.”

The “Central Hong Kong Chandelier” (2021) sits next to “Big Skin” (2022), which blurs the mundane and the fantastic. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

The exhibit, which originally opened in 2019, before the pandemic, was two years in the making. But Berger believes that the isolation and anxiety of Covid-19 has made the show – and the 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 to enter Hong Kong and get a feel for the gallery space.

Rist created two completely new works for the exhibition. Outside, a massive projection turns the former prison yard in which the gallery is located into a “glade in the city,” where Rist hopes people will come together and connect personally.

And inside, the new “Big Skin” installation ties together the exhibition’s central metaphor: membranes. Semi-translucent white “sheets” hang from the ceiling, while video projections depicting galaxies and natural landscapes—a mix of real footage and animations—play across their surfaces. Like floating clouds, they absorb and emit light, creating eerie shadows even as they show soothing scenes of autumn leaves.

For Berger, the authenticity of Rist’s art is part of the charm — because despite its surrealism, none of it is computer generated. “I think that’s what the fascination is, why people are so attracted to her work: There is nothing fake, everything is real,” he said.

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

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

The final room, “The Apartment,” gives a former woman’s prison cell the appearance of a home: A dining table and chairs, a sofa and sideboard, and a day bed, are surrounded by the jumble of domestic knick-knacks, of which many from Hong Kong, and a painting by a local artist. But projections move across space like ghosts, a setup more strange than familiar.

As in the pixel forest, Rist immerses the viewer in a dreamlike combination of lights, colors and sound that foil the everyday. She gives weight to emotions and ideas — thereby giving body to the invisible lines that connect us.

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

Behind Your Eyelid” shows at JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, until 27 November 2022.

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