ANATOMY OF AN ARTWORK Pixel Forest Transformer, 2016 by Pipilotti Rist

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently hosting Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor, the first large-scale survey of the acclaimed Swiss artist to be staged on the west coast of America. The show covers the full breadth of Rist’s career, from her early single-channel video pieces of the mid-Eighties, through room-sized installations with accompanying musical scores to sculptures and fully digital images. The show – which is also MOCA’s first ever carbon-neutral exhibition – serves as a snapshot of the dizzying pace at which digital art has grown, moved from the margins and creatively evolved over the past 40 years. Rist has previously likened museums to ‘public living rooms’, and with this in mind, the Geffen space at MOCA is treated as an open plan, ‘backyard’ space for an audience to converge, while the side rooms are reworked as foliage-covered homes and civic buildings, a capsule art-town within the gallery.

 Installation view of Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,  at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Zak Kelley

The centerpiece of this exhibition is Rist’s 2016 work, Pixel Forest Transformer. This vast, immersive installation comprises 3000 LED lights that hang from the 35-feet-high gallery ceiling in connected vertical strands. The lights themselves have the misshapen, multi-surfaced organic forms of stalactites, coral or crystals, the connecting wires bunched and trailing like floating strands of hair between each point. Each light represents a single pixel of a video frame, turning the whole room into a journey through a moving image. Chromatic patterns flicker and shift through the lights as you navigate the gallery, placing the viewer directly within the physical structure of a moving picture.


Installation view of Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,  at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Zak Kelley

On one level, this is a neat, eye-catching aesthetic trick – something akin to the higher end audio-visual sets that accompany Instagram-friendly electronic gigs, or the light-based public art shows now commonplace in post-industrial city settings. But on another, it is a full physical manifestation of ideas that Rist has been pushing at since she first worked with videotape at the start of her career. From her earliest pieces she challenged the notion of this as a lesser medium – something doomed to simply carry flat, 2-dimensional work, reproduce washed-out color, and only offer restrictive options for display.

‘Rather than treat video as a documentary medium, Pipilotti Rist harnesses it to roam the psyche, nature’s wonders, and utopian fantasies,’ writes MOCA Curator Anna Katz. ‘Neither cold nor objective, video in Rist’s hands bathes us in chromatic and sonic warmth, in sensuous pleasure and joyous rebellion – and this is its art historical significance.’

Katz sees a piece like Pixel Forest Transformer as the latest expression in a process which started with Rist dancing manically for a camera in 1986’s video piece I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much: ‘coaxing euphoric states out of machines and inviting a bodily engagement with both technology and the museum, in this time of social isolation, her work is a tonic.’


Installation view of Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,  at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Zak Kelley

But what does the artist think? ‘My goal is welcoming guests with their whole physical presence,’ says Rist of the latest piece. ‘That means that they are in a way the actors when they come into the rooms and we are only preparing a stage. I try to melt in and work with the different tools – which is video, light, sound and make it a full journey.’

The artist has arranged the 3000 individual lights so that colorwaves – from deep purple to a pale, washed-out blue – move through them in a precise sequence, a kind of electronic take on pointilism, an abstract image filling the room as the viewer immerses themselves in the artwork. 

But more than just a neat trompe l’oeil, Rist’s work is also a gentle rebuke of the rush into virtual reality. ‘It’s a humoristic reaction to VR,’ she says. ‘When they give us the glasses, we have the three dimensional feeling but we are more isolated than before.’ By contrast, this more technologically advanced, forward-looking artist is using her electronic tools to make a distinctly old fashioned case for the power of the artistic, collective experience. ‘Here, (instead), it’s like the wish to walk literally through an image together.’ 


 Open My Glade (Flatten), 2000 (still). Single-channel video installation, silent, color; 9:07 min. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine

Pixel Forest Transformer ultimately works on four levels: as an aesthetic, deeply sensory experience; as a carefully calibrated work of visual art, with its colors and imagery sitting within the three-dimensional frame created by the LED lights; and as a further reinvention of just what digital art can achieve when its physical limits are pushed. But perhaps most important is the old-fashioned, traditional message that it carries: that art is ultimately about the human experience, about the connection between audience and material and about the physical sensation of experiencing work together. 

Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor is on view until June 5, 2022. Read more about Pipilotti Rist on her Artspace artist page and get a copy of Phaidon’s Pipilotti Rist Pixel Forest: Published in Association with the New Museum and Massimiliano Gioni.


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