PIPILOTTI RIST, installation view of Mercy Mercy (2013) at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2013. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York.

“Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid”

Pipilotti Rist

Guangdong Times Museum
China Switzerland

I particularly wanted to like this. Romanticism is unusual in contemporary art, and Pipilotti Rist is pretty much unique among video artists in displaying such a propensity, rebelling against the habitual temperament and lineage of her chosen medium. Romanticism, in addition, seems a more radical artistic pose today than exhuming yet another archive or proposing one more fruitless round of “questioning.” “Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid,” at the Guangdong Times Museum, is Rist’s first solo exhibition in China—she visited Guangzhou briefly in 2012 to view the space, then, after a year’s sabbatical in the rural idyll of Somerset, England, to recover from illness, returned for four weeks to complete and install the works.

The Times Museum’s unusual set-up appealed to Rist, who has long sought ways to uncover herself to the widest possible audience. Perched atop a housing estate—part of the Time Property Group—in a developing suburb of Guangzhou, the institution engages with the life of this community, actively inviting its input and involvement in programming. This relationship can seem tokenistic, more effective in sending a frisson of sanitized reality down the spines of art insiders than in gaining interest from the building’s residents. For this show, Rist installed white lanterns of crumpled plastic in the building’s communal garden. With their unintended symbolism of mourning and death, these were promptly rejected by inhabitants as inappropriate to the impending Mid-Autumn Festival, and painted over with bright colors.

Yet it is undeniable that the Times Museum is an interesting prototype, trialling possible approaches toward increased engagement with contemporary art, while also introducing new work to existing audiences in the city. And “Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid” is a strong offering on both these counts. It is basically one megawork—Mercy Mercy (2013)—filmed and edited by Rist with great freedom and minimal assistance during her time in Somerset, with a few other bits and bobs brought along for the ride.

PIPILOTTI RIST, installation view of Relax Your Eyeball (2013) at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2013. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Mercy Mercy is huge, pouring out of 13 projectors onto a 75-meter-long wall that runs the entire length of the building. The rest of the main room is bare—the few windows and skylights that dot its surfaces have been covered with translucent acetate in blue, red and purple for the exhibition, creating a hazy glow that changes in intensity throughout the day. The atmosphere is laidback, with a melancholy edge provided by the spacey folk of Heinz Rohrer’s soundtrack. The slow-motion projections are almost synchronized, with a slight delay that causes the imagery to ripple down the length of the wall as it evolves. Eventually, each projection diverges into its own separate pastoral motif, with resulting contrasts and affinities.

Mercy Mercy seeks the engagement of all our senses in the very nature of landscape, creating a new form of emancipation now that geographic escape is barely possible. A series of haptic moments stimulate our sense of touch, seeking to overturn the aggressive supremacy of the eye. Hands play against soft, colorful petals and stiff brushlike stamens, or brush through meadows of greenery. Rakes push through tumbling clumps of soil, dirty fingernails trace around the edges of stones, glowing white clothes flap slowly on a line against a bright blue sky. Barren trees are silhouetted against gentle winter sunsets and fingers press against the sharp points of a barbed-wire fence. In a more typical Ristian moment, a human tongue is shown in close up, pushing boldly through water, which becomes beguilingly viscous in slow motion. The beauty of an unadulterated landscape or the intricate lines of a spread palm invite visual wonder, and the collision of diverse imagery, from swaying laundry to thrusting tongue, in neighboring projections provokes amusement.

The experience almost tips over into immersive bliss—almost, but not quite. For one thing, the music is nervy rather than bucolic. And, more importantly, Rist—who frequently exhorts us to escape the modern tyrannies of screen and machine, and the falsehoods of advertising that all alienate us from the world—seems entranced by the possibilities of technology herself. Countryside scenes are filtered and layered, infused with a sense of artificiality; colors are solarized or saturated to an intense pitch; light sparkles on water with exaggerated flare; time is slowed to a digital crawl; close-ups of light shining through ear flaps and silhouetted profiles in landscapes can seem tricksy. A distance is imposed between viewer and experience, and the work risks becoming an entertaining, and occasionally puzzling, feat of photography rather than a space of sensual engagement.

PIPILOTTI RIST, installation view of Open Air (A la belle étoile) (2007), with the artist on the far right, at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2013. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York.

The other five works on display are mainly old friends. A glowing lampshade (Cape Cod Chandelier, 2011)—constructed from rather grubby white underwear—is a joyous, kaleidoscopic beacon to the physical and emotional vitality of the orifices and organs these clothes have contained. Open Air (A la belle étoile) (2007) is a single, circular, floor-bound projection that displays a profound interest in entering the mouths and nostrils of distorted protagonists trapped in urban settings, or heading up their skirts and coats, discovering rings of burning gas, skies of luminous blue or balls of orange flame within. Again, the stated ambition is to achieve the existential; the result seems like a more disturbing predecessor to Mercy Mercy.

The installation Relax Your Eyeball (2013) is a little unexpected. Colored and silvered lenses, magnifying glasses and glass droplets, all sourced locally, sit on a single plinth or are suspended from a bare branch hanging directly above. The piece is surrounded on three sides by sweeping vistas of Guangzhou provided by floor-to-ceiling windows. Viewers can peer into the globes to appreciate the entire cityscape captured within or gawp at their own distorted faces. Alternatively, they can just enjoy the whole piece as an elegant piece of Arte Povera-lite.

There were mutterings among the art critics invited to view the Guangzhou opening that Rist had lost the edginess that made I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) and Ever Is All Over (1997) exciting, awkward, subversive and compelling. Yet Mercy Mercy seems to indicate that the problem is not that Rist has lost her edge, rather that she has not lost enough of it. Her unresolved ambivalence about the mediation of the screen—which she professes to reject yet remains inextricably drawn to—prevents Mercy Mercy being an unqualified success, whether as romantic eulogy or surreal hallucination. We cannot expect artists to repeat the songs of their youth forever and, by and large, it would be better if they did not. Rist is on the cusp of finding a real alternative, but the “relevance” and “edge” that first ignited her relationship with critics may need to be sacrificed in order to ensure that she reaches this destination.

PIPILOTTI RIST, installation view of Mercy Mercy (2013) at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2013. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Pipilotti Rist’s Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid is on view at the Guangdong Times Museum through January 2014.

John Jervis is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.