“Eyeball Massage” is the fittingly uncanny title of the Pipilotti Rist retrospective currently running at Hayward Gallery, London. Ostensibly, it points to the overblown sensuality of the works of the Swiss video artist, which are marked by their riot of colours and often installed as part of a larger, immersive environ. The result is often visceral and psychedelic – a sensorium that induces in the viewer a visual orgasm of sorts. But the title also avoids reducing Rist’s oeuvre to a pseudo-utopian project in affirmation of sensual pleasure, for the notion of an eyeball massage also evokes queasiness, or even trauma. I’m reminded of that screaming face with the bloodied eye in Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, from which Bacon took much inspiration. It’s a disconcerting image, in no small part due to the unfathomable sensation that we are made to imagine: that of our perception being ruptured through physical violence, the perception-image a surface shattered by way of brute force. While such violence isn’t explicit in the innocent, at times saccharine works of Rist, a hint of uneasiness persists, for when perception becomes a bodily experience, it becomes vulnerable to pain.
The retrospective is less a collection of works than a total work by itself, a gesamtkunstwerk, a phantasmagoria of otherworldly images seeping into one another. One walks through the gallery arrested by the vividness of the colour, the sheer surfeit of life. Motifs like flowers, grassy fields, deep waters, free-roaming animals and free-floating bodies recur. But it is not a leisurely stroll in Wonderland, for we are made to circumvent obstacles: a maze of diaphanous curtains upon which the videos are projected and on the floor, heaps of body-shaped cushions on which the audience rest as they take in the surrounding spectacle. Our bodies are rarely static – we have to lie, bend, kneel, stick our heads through holes and peer through narrow openings to access the works. Even at rest, fed with the stream of images – of bodies in suspension, expansion, dissolution – we are animated by the presence of the viewed/ viewing other. We desire escape into the screen, to be assimilated into the bodies unfolding in unmitigated splendor.
In Mutaflor, the naked artist looks up at us from a video projected upon the floor. The camera circles around her like a fly, enters the dark cavity of her mouth and in the next moment, emerges from her anus. The cycle continues. We orbit around the video frame as we vicariously penetrate her body time and again. Between our two bodies, a kind of awkward dance takes place. This seems to be the modus operandi for most of Rist’s smaller works, which are often approached with a sense of curiosity and play. But such interactivity can be facile, even gimmicky, if we were to truly speak of the relationship between the filmic and perceiving body, between ocularity and bodyness, and interestingly, we would find that it is in the works which concentrate solely upon the act of looking, which do not belabour this notion of interactivity, that we can find this relationship most profoundly explored.
In the theatrical, three-channel installation, Lobe Of The Lung, one is bathed in an alchemy of bright lights and hyper-saturated colours. We glide through a field of gigantic pink tulips, the forms morphing unstably in the interstices between one frame and the next – a serendipitous imperfection of the digitally imposed time stretch. A woman appears, her face so close to the camera one can trace her pores and count her eyelashes, and in her hand, a slimy, wiggling earthworm. Later, a pair of feet walks through puddles of rainwater, litter strewn all around, and in the adjacent screen, there is a garish concoction of green strawberries floating in pink water. There is also a wild boar sniffing its way through the grass, its swollen, glistening snout taking a whiff of the camera. All these images unfold at a languidly slow pace and at the proximity of an extreme close-up. It is in this intimacy that one begins to feel the sense of an assault. These are images pushed to the threshold of visuality, on the edge of becoming pure sensations impressed upon the retina. We no longer see through our eyes, that permeable, untouchable lens through which images of the world outside enters us, but our eyeballs. We are awakened to the frisson of sight, resensitised to seeing as a somatic experience.
Rist’s works have been described to induce feelings of weightlessness, but they are clearly more the equivalent of an LSD-induced fantasy. While her works are in many ways, spellbinding, we are never really lulled into quiescence. At most, we may sense the dissolution of our bodily limits, and the tremulous anticipation of the body’s escape from itself, but never do we lose awareness of our own corporeality; in fact, we feel it more acutely than ever. This is most strongly felt in Administrating Eternity, the new commission that takes up a full room, where there is the presence of the bodies of fellow viewers constantly encroaching into our space. As we lounge on the cushions, watching sheep blithely pass us by in the projections on the hanging curtains, our experience is constantly disrupted by passing silhouettes, hurried footsteps, careless ruffling of the curtains. Our body is always placed in constant negotiation with the moving image, the surrounding space and other bodies, caught in a impasse between escape and entrapment, and what results is a renewed sensitivity to the body that we inhabit.
Perhaps it can then be said that the works of Rist presents not so much an affirmation of sensual pleasure than a rupture towards the assumed affinity between sensuality and pleasure. The sensuality of her works is one which incites, which aspires less towards sublimity than provocation. But at the same time, the provocation is rarely explicit, for despite the strident colours, her works are poised and cautiously paced. Her universe is still essentially that of the fairytale – one which, however, becomes too rosy for comfort the longer you fix your eyes upon it.
One section of the exhibition, however, stands out rather awkwardly. In the first room, there is a large diorama of a house standing alone in bleak, empty suburbia, as part of the installation, Suburb Brain. On the wall of that perfect family home is a video that hints at the bizarre events unfolding within: a family sitting silently around a table, dumbstruck by their plates that have been set on fire. Nearby, on the gallery wall, another video follows Rist in a car as she delivers an existential monologue on life, relationships, metaphysics, theology and the like. A larger, mural-sized video containing footage of the passing scenery and spanning two adjacent walls is projected over a quirky display of whitened domestic objects. And hanging from the ceiling is the cheeky Massachusetts Chandelier, a chandelier made from underwear donated by the artist’s friends and family. Admittedly, the feminist and socio-political overtones are more apparent in these works, but singling them out in a segregated space appears a misguided move, as if they cannot both lay claim to the sensuality as expressed by the rest of the exhibited works and at the same time deliver their critique.
In fact, the bold sensuality of Rist’s works is what gives them their critical edge. One does not just sit back and see “the things themselves”, for here, the things are looking back at us.
Eyeball Massage is currently running at the Hayward Gallery, London from 28 September 2011 to 8 January 2012.