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’s another reprieve from the bustling city. It’s a forest — though it’s 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 from plastic cables that twist like tendrils and flash red, blue, green, yellow and pink along with the music. The glossy black floor forms a glassy lake that reflects each rough, twinkling crystal, creating a kind of infinity.

The immersive work of multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist is 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 recalls.

Rist explores the internal chaos of our digital world through what she called a “raw, raw virtual reality” that viewers can touch and explore. Walking through her pixel forest, it’s hard not to imagine standing in front of a phone or laptop screen — or seeing some kind of beauty in this broken-down and blown-up 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 connected,’ but actually being together (in person) is something completely different,” Rist said.

The installation is one of nearly 50 of her works on display in her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, “Behind Your Eyelid”, which showcases three decades of work in the JC Contemporary gallery. In it, Rist also discusses the things that separate us, and the facades that we have to break through in order to come into contact with each other.

“I’m trying to bring the electronics in front of or off 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 came into 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 has never formally credited the artist’s 1997 work, which depicts a carefree Rist in red heels and a blue dress, hopping down a street wearing a long-stemmed red flower. However, the scene was instantly recognizable: a woman skipping casually down a car-lined street, smashing windows, baseball bat in hand.

"Ever is about everything" (1997) is a two-channel video: on one side you see fields of flowers, while on the other (pictured) Rist jumps down a car-lined street, holding a flower.

“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, holding a flower. Credit: CNN

Rist, who creates her work in collaboration with a team of audio, lighting and video engineers, was flattered by the apparent nod. “I thought it was cool that people who might never go to art shows 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 note about female power and autonomy, a major 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 dominate. Still, she objects 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 always tried to say, ‘No, that’s man.’ “

In her Hong Kong exhibition, images 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 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 looping video played on a television in a swimsuit. Credit: Rebecca Cairns / CNN

Light emitting from the basin is a common motif in Rist’s art. (“It’s where we saw the light when we came out of our mothers,” she explained.) And her humor is also evident in her chandelier of knickers, which plays with the double meaning of “light,” which both shines and is lightweight.

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

Peel off layers

Across the three-storey exhibition, Rist showcases her incredible range: decades-old works sit alongside new site-specific installations, while whole immersive rooms are followed by some screens. In one case, a small screen the size of a ping pong ball is embedded in the floor, showing the six-minute video “Selbstlos im Lavabad” (Selbstlos im Lavabad) from 1994, featuring a screaming woman caught in a fiery purgatory.

Many of the pieces were created decades ago, but 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 would have been shown in its original form on a much smaller projector. Now the work fills two walls, from 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) is next to “Big Skin” (2022), blurring the mundane and fantastic. Credit: Rebecca Cairns / CNN

Originally inaugurated in 2019, before the pandemic, the exhibition was two years in the making. But Berger believes the isolation and fear of Covid-19 has made the show — and its recurring theme of human connection — more relevant than ever. Rist herself experienced isolation during the preparation of the exhibition, last year she spent 21 days in quarantine to enter Hong Kong and get a sense of the gallery space.

Rist created two completely new works for the exhibition. Outside, a huge projection transforms the former prison garden in which the gallery is located into a ‘city clearing’, where Rist hopes people will gather and connect in person.

And inside, the new “Big Skin” installation connects the central metaphor of the exhibition: membranes. Semi-translucent white “skins” hang from the ceiling, while video projections of galaxies and natural landscapes – a mixture of real footage and animation – play across their surface. Like floating clouds, they absorb and radiate light, creating eerie shadows, even as they show soothing scenes of autumn leaves.

For Berger, the authenticity of Rist’s art is part of its charm — because, despite the surrealism, none of it is computer generated. “I think that’s the fascination, why people are so attracted to her work: there’s 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 Kwan

The final room, ‘The Apartment’, gives a former wife’s prison cell the look of a home: a dining table and chairs, sofa and dresser, and day bed are surrounded by the clutter of homely trinkets, many of which are from Hong Kong , and a painting by a local artist. But projections move through space like ghosts, a more eerie than familiar arrangement.

Just like in the pixel forest, Rist immerses the viewer in a dreamy combination of light, colors and sound that thwart the everyday. She gives weight to emotions and ideas — giving body to the invisible lines that connect us.

“We’re so much more alike than we’re different,” she says.

Behind your eyelidon display at JC Contemporary in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, until November 27, 2022.

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