HUMLEBÆK, Denmark — A blond woman is trapped inside a screen on the wall. Titled Open My Glade (Flatten) (2000), this is the first artwork viewers see when they walk into Pipilotti Rist’s current exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. The woman is Rist, the artist herself. As she smushes her lipstick-smeared face right up against the edges of the TV monitor, it only takes a tiny leap of the imagination to decide she might actually be stuck in there, her green eye shadow smudging as she circles around and around. It is gloriously defiant. Like a naughty kid kicked out of a classroom, she pushes her face against the glass, taunting everyone still stuck at their desks. Rist has put herself in a box, quite literally, but as she reminds us, this doesn’t mean she has to care about the rules.
Pipilotti Rist has been making playful video art that subverts conventional ideas about how screens should be used since the late 1980s, long before it became the norm to carry a tiny screen around in your pocket. Born in Switzerland, Rist started calling herself Pipilotti at art school in Vienna in 1982. She created the portmanteau by melding her own nickname, Lotti (from Elizabeth), with Pippi Longstocking, Sweden’s beloved proto-feminist children’s book character: a freckle-faced, pigtailed nine-year-old who called herself “the strongest girl in the world.”
“I was a wild girl,” Rist has said of herself as a child, and her radiantly colorful videos honor this rebellious spirit. In Ever Is Over All (1997) — to which Beyonce paid homage in her 2016 music video for “Hold Up” — a woman in a sweetly feminine ice-blue dress walks down a city street, her head held high. She holds a tropical flower made of metal in her hand. Men stop and stare in scenes that echo an image from Ruth Orkin’s 1951 photo series American Girl in Italy. But instead of shrinking under the weight of their gazes, the woman (Rist’s friend) starts swinging the flower at car windows. Her red block heels, evoking Dorothy in Oz, carry her buoyantly down the street, and as she whacks at the glass like a teenage delinquent, her serene smile never falters. A policewoman wearing red lipstick nods warmly as the protagonist passes. Watching this free and strong woman push and play with the boundaries of socially sanctioned behavior is a stunningly exhilarating experience.
Video art is rarely this engaging. It can seem willfully obtuse or pointlessly obscure, and often it’s just plain boring. Not with Pipilotti Rist at the helm. On the upper floor of the gallery is a room in which the view of a calm blue sea is so clear, pure, and perfect it seems almost artificial. Initially it might appear as if the only art in the room is this idyllic vista. But over in the corner, there’s a tiny crack: a little hole in the ground where a screen has been planted under the floorboards. A three-centimeter Pipilotti reaches up, topless and screaming, surrounded by a red-hot sea of CGI flames. The piece, Selfless in the Bath of Lava (1994), is gleefully dark. From her minuscule screen, Rist shouts out pleads like, “I am a worm and you are a flower! You would have done everything better.” She’s both desperate and funny, trapped in a raging miniature purgatory in this pristine and tranquil room.
Along with its wildness, a sense of wonder imbues much of Rist’s work. In Pixel Forest (2016), a dark room, illuminated by orb-shaped lights hung on strings, becomes a mystical maze of flashing luminescent space rocks. And in gorgeously languid pieces like 4th Floor to Mildness (2016) and Worry Will Vanish Relief (2014), she zooms in on parts of the body we rarely view closely — often out of disgust, shame, or familiarity — transforming them into beautiful abstractions, almost indistinguishable from the leaves and dirt and stems of the natural world alongside them. Nipples, peeling cuticles, floating strands of hair, orifices and genitalia, and wrinkled bits of skin all drift by in her flowing, floating worlds of liquid, color, and music. We are all mammals, she implies with this, and the surrounding nature is as much a part of us as we are of it.
Amid all of this, Rist wants us to get comfortable. “The museum is a shared apartment where you can visit each other’s brains and bodies,” she says in her foreword to the catalogue. “Fall into the green waters behind and in front of our eyelids, swim around in exploding pixels.” 4th Floor, which is filmed underwater, is shown on giant lily pad–shaped screens on the ceiling. Viewers lie down on comfortable beds in the room with their shoes off, lulled into a state of relaxation and ease. Funny, gross, beautiful, and sad all at once, Rist’s videos and installations are about the singular experience of being a person in a body in the world — and the way the things we touch and the things that touch us can shape our experiences in profound but simple ways. “I am interested in the wonder of life beyond the daily duties we have to fulfill,” Rist said recently in an interview with Monocle. Her creations are intoxicatingly joyful, yet imbued with the inevitable serving of melancholy that matches every high. Rist revels in the way the splendor and the chaos of it all persists. Open My Glade is a mesmerizing and riotous celebration of how extraordinary, fun, and weird it is to be alive.
Pipilotti Rist: Open My Glade continues at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Gl Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk, Denmark) through June 23.