2016-10-21 22:06:15
Pipilotti Rist, Provoking With Delight

The Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist may have been raised in the birthplace of Calvinism, with its reputation for austerity and penitence. But you wouldn’t know it by her work, or almost anything she has touched in an influential career spanning three decades. She titled one of her books “Congratulations!” and another, bound in pink velvet, “The Tender Room.” Her hallucinatory 2009 feature film, “Pepperminta,” told the tale, as she once described it, of “a young woman and her friends on a quest to find the right color combinations and with these colors they can free other people from fear.”

When she greeted me recently in the loading dock of the New Museum — which is giving its entire building over to her unconventional retrospective, “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” opening Wednesday — she was brightly colored herself, in a sky-blue uniform jacket and matching pants that she said were a brand manufactured for Japanese electricians. She politely interrupted a morning planning meeting to make sure I knew the names of every one of the dozen or so people helping her install the show, including its curator, Massimiliano Gioni, whom she introduced as her uncle.

Mr. Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, smiled. “The creepy uncle?” he said. “Or the nice one?”

She replied: “Oh, the nice one. The one who takes you fishing.”

Ms. Rist’s work — which has been at the forefront of the evolution of video art, pulling it from the screen out into the world, projecting it everywhere from the ceiling to the insides of seashells, upending many of the conventions established by television and film — is the madcap aunt who takes you fishing. And wandering through the forest. And swimming in the buff. And gleefully smashing car windows with a cudgel in the shape of a long-stemmed flower, as a woman does in perhaps Ms. Rist’s best-known piece, “Ever Is Over All,” from 1997. The critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that the video seemed to hold the promise of an era “of rococo pleasures, which would blur boundaries between art and entertainment in no end of surprising ways,” a judgment that seemed prescient after Beyoncé borrowed liberally from the work this year for her video for “Hold Up.”

Ms. Rist, 54, who was raised in an upper-middle-class churchgoing family in the countryside of eastern Switzerland (her given name is Elisabeth Charlotte; her nickname came from Pippi Longstocking, the horse-lifting Swedish children’s heroine) has seen her mission almost from the beginning to demolish the boundary between the art world and the world. She has worked to extend the thought-provoking, often abstruse, sometimes abrasive work of video pioneers like Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci and Nam June Paik into a form that offers more comfort, feels more like a friend. “That’s why we have friends,” she once said, “so we can tell each other, ‘Hey, you’ve got a warped view of that problem!’ That’s a friend’s task but also the job of culture.”

Over a lunch of kale salad and French fries the day I interviewed her, she said: “I think it’s the most important job of the artist: to try not to just reach the converted.”

The retrospective will provide Ms. Rist with her most prominent stage in the American art world, after a much-praised turn at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008, with “Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters),” a lush video environment that took over the museum’s atrium. (Karen Rosenberg, in The New York Times, wrote that it was “arguably the first project to humanize — and feminize — the atrium.”) The New Museum show will be, in some ways, a traditional survey, beginning with D.I.Y. single-channel videos from the late 1980s and including an unusual, rarely seen piece, “Nothing,” from 1999, a dour-looking machine that gently blows fog-filled soap bubbles.

But as Ms. Rist often does when approached about looking back at her career, she has tried diligently to make the show seem like a fresh creation, in part by making a brand-new work that will fill the fourth floor.

The piece, a video environment called “4th Floor To Mildness,” will invite visitors to take off their shoes and stretch out on secondhand beds that the New Museum has collected (and cleaned). The viewers will gaze toward the ceiling at two amoeba-shaped screens, on which will be projected watery footage that Ms. Rist, who lives and works in Zurich, filmed over the summer in a part of the Rhine that she knows by heart. “We used to swim there as children,” she said. “It’s super Swiss.”

But the river flowing overhead — to haunting compositions by the experimental Austrian artist and musician Anja Plaschg, who calls her project Soap&Skin — is not fairy-tale land. It’s by turns crystalline and then muck-brown, as rivers are beneath the surface. Sometimes a close-up flash of naked human flesh can be seen, a nipple here, a wrinkled hand there. The water is sheathed with green lily pads but also with rotting ones. “When things rot, however, they become the hummus that things grow from, so it’s not so bad,” Ms. Rist said, lying on the floor near Mr. Gioni as the piece was being installed.

Mr. Gioni, who is organizing the show with Margot Norton and Helga Christoffersen, said: “Sometimes we say that this is Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ except from the other side, below the surface.”

Another soundtrack in the room suggests the process of digestion and, as if to underscore corporeality, additional projectors will waft images resembling red blood cells over the supine viewers. “The sound is like the sound of the …” — Ms. Rist searched for the right words, and patted her stomach — “the inside of your machine. Bloob, bloob, bloob.”

Over the last few years, Ms. Rist has had to think about her own personal machine more than anyone would care to. After contracting hepatitis, she became seriously ill and had to stop working; to recuperate, she moved temporarily with her partner and her young son to the English countryside in Somerset, where one of the galleries that represents her, Hauser & Wirth, has built an art center on what was for centuries a working farm.

I asked her if being ill had changed her outlook on her work. She took a while to think. “I think it only made me want to try harder to separate my feelings about growing older and weaker from pessimism about the world in general,” she said. “I think it’s a confusion people often fall into, to mistake your own state for the state of everything else. So I’m working to be hopeful about the state of everything.”