IN HER FIRST YEAR of graduate school, Pipilotti Rist made an iconic and influential video that landed her a debut exhibition invitation after its first screening. In that 5-minute piece, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), Rist dances around in a low-cut black dress, her breasts at times flopping out of the garment, as she repeats the titular phrase in a singsongy voice that builds into a cathartic crescendo. She recorded, edited, and starred in the piece herself, and the results are rife with glitches and often awash in the pinks and purples that would soon become her signature. That early work sums up so much of Rist’s project: colorful, high femme, and self-reflexive. She knows what she’s doing. She isn’t missing much.
Her popularity has grown exponentially since. Her 2016 survey at the New Museum in New York broke institutional attendance records, and Beyoncé famously borrowed from Rist’s Ever Is Over All (1997) for the video for her 2016 song “Hold Up.” (In both, the respective artist wears a gown and a smile as she skips along the street and smashes car windows.) Rist’s breakout 2008 installation in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), was dismissed by some as a work in which visitors liked to lounge, practice yoga, and host playdates. But such criticism misses Rist’s genius: Pour Your Body Out managed to draw huge crowds and make them feel at ease despite its focus on a woman who is shown collecting her menstrual blood in a silver chalice. Rist insists on the importance and the centrality of the body in her work, especially those parts considered weird, gross, or taboo. With bright colors, alluring tempos, and lulling music, she’s made popular work out of an important feminist project.
Now, for a joint show opening November 9 at Hauser & Wirth and November 18 at Luhring Augustine—both in New York—Rist is debuting new furniture-sculpture hybrids, which marks a pivot for an artist who has until now worked with electronic and time-based media. Below, Rist talks about the transition leading up to the show, titled “Prickling Goosebumps & a Humming Horizon.”
Your work has long brought bright spots of color to a low-saturation art world, but color is growing more and more popular. Do you have any feelings about this?
You’re right—chromophobia is less bad than it used to be. But this development took a long time. Maybe you’ve read David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia (2000): he says that, for so long, black-and-white art was seen as more rational, while color was dangerous; as with music, you cannot control what you feel. This also gets linked with femininity: color gets described as something that might make you feel swallowed and seduced.
Another big problem is that color is often used in advertisements, and fine art wants to be distinct. Advertisements and prettiness are often perceived as dangerously seductive, or dishonest. My work often used to be perceived as childish, but this has really changed a lot. I haven’t gotten this critique anymore in the last few years. Though maybe that’s because I got older….
There’s this cliché of dressing in all black as if to say, “Oh, I’m so deep. I don’t need to draw attention to my outer side because my values are inside.” When I see people dressed in all black, I think about how a hundred years ago, it was only the priest and the teacher who dressed like that.
Tell us about your new glitter sculptures!
They are called “Metal Flake Milk Tooth” (2023), and they’re my first works that aren’t time-based. They have no video and no electricity; they’re a mix between sculpture and furniture. I think of every sculpture as, in a sense, un-useful furniture. They are made with layers of glittery lacquer, and the sparkles look different from every angle. They change as you walk around. It’s impossible to photograph the glittery effect, which I find very interesting. When you walk, in a way, you edit your own video.
Why are you splitting the show over two Chelsea galleries?
I consider Manhattan to be one museum, and I’m just playing in a few rooms. At Hauser & Wirth, I have two big new works you could call animated carpets. They’re both projections from above onto furniture and people. The light caresses everything with its beam. They are titled Welling Color West and Welling Color East: I’m not sure if “welling” works in English, but I like that I have some poetic freedom with my titles when I use a German way of speaking English. “Welling” has the double meaning of the well, with water that bubbles, but also alludes to this idea that the color might shower on people like a healing machine.
The other projection is two moving lights—big, round colors—called Petting Colors. I want to use electronic light to caress people and bring them together, whereas often, people watch videos at home alone. Visitors won’t be forced to look horizontally at walls. Instead, you can sit or lie on the carpet, or the sofa, or the bed.
You often re-create domestic furnishings—like your underwear chandelier (Massachusetts Chandelier, 2010) or oversize couch (Das Zimmer [The Room], 1994). And you often create comfortable surfaces for viewers to sit or lie down on while watching your videos. Thank you! What led you to meld the gallery and the home?
I made the oversize couch in reaction to the fact that, when we watch TV, reality seems to shrink in our perception. I wanted to do the opposite and expand reality. That’s why the monitor looks shrunken. The work is outdated now, but it’s still popular and still getting shown. I think it’s nice that younger people might learn about a time when families would fight over the remote control.
To me, all museums and all galleries look like living rooms. A hundred years ago, you had paintings hanging above each other on wallpaper in both settings, at least in the Western world. As the museum became a white cube, so did living rooms. The main difference is that museums don’t offer the possibility of rest. When people come to my exhibitions, I want their whole body to be welcomed, and in different postures. My second big wish is that viewers don’t ignore each other. When looking at a painting, if another person walks in front of you, it’s an inconvenience. But as soon as you give people the chance to lie down or sit, then suddenly, other people aren’t just a distraction but also part of the scene.
Is that why you moved away from making single-channel videos?
My mission is to use electronic light to bring us together. Single-channel videos are not in relation to a room; you can watch them anywhere. As a video artist, I want to give people something different than what they can watch alone in their bed, something that connects them with other people, too. But maybe I should make one again!
Some of your breakthrough pieces, like Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), were immersive video projections. But now, your immersive installations are starting to use colorful lights more than recorded images. Why the transition?
You’re talking about Petting Colors, and also Pixel Forest (2016). People don’t always realize that Pixel Forest is actually a three-dimensional monitor. I got the idea the first time I put on virtual reality goggles: I felt more isolated than ever! So I said to my friend, a lighting designer, can we put pixels in the air and walk between them, together? Pixel Forest is 3,000 dots, and it looks chaotic—but every pixel knows exactly where in the room it is. When I play a sharp image, it’s very hectic; with a softer image, the room almost pulsates. Every video is light, whether it’s on a monitor or a projector, and my wish is to free this wonderful light from the rectangle.
Video technology has changed so much since you started working. How have you thought about evolving alongside it?
I’m a walking technical history! When video evolved from analog to digital, it was a huge step. I think it’s important that young people understand that there used to be TVs in living rooms, and only certain people could send content to them; many people received this content. As the machines became smaller, and with the advent of the digital, everyone became a potential sender. It’s more democratic than it used to be.
Glitches are essential parts of some of your earlier works, but today, your works are smoother.
Analog glitches and mistakes are much nicer than digital ones. They are more physical. When we are nervous or angry, we also have these glitches. The analog is closer to our physical body than the digital. But I’m also finding nice mistakes in the digital world. It’s similar to painting: often, when your painting isn’t photorealistic, you can put more feelings and subconscious layers in. My theory is that the glitches are very similar to our subconscious. There is too much or too little wanted from us, and we react with psychosomatic problems. When our body glitches, it’s telling us we have to make a decision or change something. Embracing mistakes is important for me not only in a technical way, but also in psychological ways.
What’s your favorite work you’ve ever made?
I don’t know that I have a favorite work, but in honor of your question, I’d say Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Lava), 1994. [Editor’s note: It’s a small monitor installed under a floorboard and viewed through a hole. Originally shown at the foot of a Madonna and Child sculpture in Switzerland, it shows a woman drowning in flames and waving her arms, suggesting damnation.] It’s been on view at MoMA PS1 since it was in a group show in 2017, and at first, I was not aware that they had never taken it down. I saw it a year later, and I was surprised. But I said OK, I’ll do a long-term loan, though you have to clean it up. By then, it was full of dust.
I saw it again three years later, and suddenly, 40 guards were around me. They had gone around to tell each other, “She’s here!”—then got together to tell me how much they loved it. I couldn’t help but cry!
This article appears under the title “Pipilotti Rist Goes Glittery” in the Winter 2023 issue, pp. 26–29.