Artist Pipilotti Rist’s serene ‘pixel forest’ explores the chaos of our digital lives

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Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNNHong Kong

In a dark room in the middle of Hong Kong, there’s a new reprieve from the bustling city. It’s a forest — although it looks nothing like the dense greenery covering the nearby mountains.

This one glows. The so-called “pixel forest” is made up of 3,000 LED lights, suspended by plastic cables that twist like vines, blinking red, blue, green, yellow and pink, in tandem with the music. The shiny black floor forms a glassy lake that reflects each rough, twinkling crystal, creating a kind of infinity.

The immersive work from multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist was inspired by her experience using virtual reality goggles. Although she said she could feel the room around her, the 60-year-old “felt extremely lonely,” she recalled.

Rist examines the internal chaos of our digital world through what she called a “rough, raw virtual reality” that viewers can touch and explore. Walking through her pixel forest, it’s hard not to picture yourself standing inside a phone or laptop screen — or, to see a kind of beauty in this broken down and blown-up version of our digital world. The experience may help visitors recognize how easy it is to become lost in technology.

“It’s sometimes an illusion. People think, ‘Oh, we’re totally in contact,’ but actually, being together (in person) is something totally different,” Rist said.

The installation is among almost 50 of her works on show at her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, “Behind Your Eyelid,” which showcases three decades of work at the JC Contemporary gallery. In it, Rist also considers the things that separate us, and the facades we must pierce through to connect with one another.

“I try to bring the electronic in front, or out, of the screen — to bring it more into the room,” said Rist.

Light from unlikely places

Born in Grabs, Switzerland, in 1962, Rist has been a fixture on the visual arts scene since the 1980s. But she unexpectedly entered mainstream consciousness in 2016, when it was suggested that Beyoncé’s music video “Hold Up” had taken inspiration from the installation “Ever is Over All.”

Beyoncé never formally credited the artist’s 1997 work — which depicts a carefree Rist in red heels and a blue dress, skipping down a street swinging a long-stemmed red flower — as an inspiration. The scene was instantly recognizable, though: a woman skipping nonchalantly down a car-lined street smashing windows, baseball bat in hand.

“Ever is Over All” (1997) is a two-channel video: one side shows fields of flowers, while the other (pictured) shows Rist skipping down a car-lined street, flower in hand. Credit: CNN

Rist, who creates her work collaboratively with a team of audio, light and video technicians, was flattered by the apparent nod. “I thought it was cool that people who may never go to art exhibitions suddenly got the reference to a video artist,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t even know that (‘Ever is Over All’) exists.”

The baseball bat brought a “certain aggression” to the scene, said Rist — whereas her own flower-turned-weapon was a more playful comment on female power and autonomy, a key theme in Rist’s work. Rist even speculated that she was drawn to her chosen medium, video art, because “it wasn’t taken by men.”

While both women and men feature in her videos, the former dominate. Yet, she takes exception to the idea that she has a preference for profiling women: “The power structure is such that we take (women) as an exception. For me, I always tried to say, ‘No, that’s the human.'”

In her Hong Kong exhibition, depictions of female torsos hang suspended from the ceiling, a Pop-Art twist on Greek and Roman sculptures. One is a stiff yellow swimsuit, with a small ’90s-style television balanced in the hollowed-out crotch, while another has light emanating from where the legs should be.

Rist’s video installation “Digesting Impressions” (1993/2013) features a looping video played on a television inside a swimsuit. Credit: Rebecca Cairns / CNN

Light projecting from pelvises is a common motif in Rist’s art. (“It’s where we saw the light when we came out from our mothers,” she explained.) And her humor is also showcased in her chandelier of underpants, which plays with the double entendre of “light” meaning both to shine and be lightweight.

“(The pelvis) is controversial for us, between shame and passion and stinking and joy,” Rist said, pointing to the idiom, “to not air one’s dirty laundry” and what it says about keeping our darkness, our problems, and our struggles, a secret. “I wished to make it light.”

Peeling back layers

Across the three-floor exhibition, Rist showcases her incredible range: Decades-old works sit alongside new, site-specific installations, while entire immersive rooms are followed by single screens. In one instance, a tiny screen the size of a ping-pong ball is embedded in the floor, showing the 1994 six-minute looping video “Selbstlos im Lavabad” (Selfless in The Bath Of Lava), featuring a screaming woman trapped in a fiery purgatory.

Many of the pieces were created decades ago, yet Rist’s art is somehow “always adapted to the newest technology,” said exhibition curator Tobias Berger. He highlights the 1996 work, “Sip My Ocean,” a two-channel video that, in its original form, would have shown on a much smaller projector. Now the work fills two walls, from floor to ceiling, on a theater-size screen. Improvements in audio technology also add another dimension to the works, Berger added, “so even the old works in every exhibition are almost site-specific new works.”

The “Central Hong Kong Chandelier” (2021) sits alongside “Big Skin” (2022), blurring the mundane and fantastical. Credit: Rebecca Cairns / CNN

Originally commissioned in 2019, before the pandemic, the exhibition was two years in the making. But Berger believes the isolation and anxiety of Covid-19 have made the show — and its recurring theme of human connectedness — more relevant than ever. Rist herself experienced isolation while preparing for the exhibition, spending 21 days in quarantine last year in order to enter Hong Kong and get a feel for the gallery space.

Rist created two entirely new works for the exhibition. Outside, a massive projection transforms the former prison yard in which the gallery is located into a “glade in the city,” where Rist hopes people will gather and connect in person.

And inside, the new “Big Skin” intallation ties together the exhibition’s central metaphor: membranes. Semi-translucent white “skins” are suspended from the ceiling, while video projections depicting galaxies and natural landscapes — a mixture of real footage and animations — play across their surfaces. Like floating clouds, they absorb and emit light, creating eerie shadows even as they show soothing scenes of autumnal leaves.

For Berger, the authenticity of Rist’s art is part of the charm — because, despite its surrealism, none of it is computer-generated. “I think that’s what the fascination is, why people are so attracted to her work: There’s nothing fake, everything is real,” he said.

“Water Tiger Colour Balm” (2022) is an outdoor video installation, created for the space outside the JC Contemporary Gallery in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Credit: Tai Kwun

The final room, “The Apartment,” gives a former woman’s prison cell the appearance of a home: A dining table and chairs, a sofa and sideboard, and a day bed, are surrounded by the clutter of homey trinkets, many of which are from Hong Kong, and a painting by a local artist. But projections move across the space like ghosts, a setup more uncanny than familiar.

As in the pixel forest, Rist immerses the viewer in a dreamlike combination of lights, colors and sound that foil the everyday. She gives weight to emotions and ideas — and in doing so, gives body to the invisible lines that connect us.

“We are so much more similar than we are different,” she said.

Behind Your Eyelid” is showing at JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, until Nov. 27, 2022.

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