Pipilotti Rista’s serene “pixel forest” explores the chaos of our digital lives

Written Rebecca Cairns, CNNHong Kong

In a dark room in the middle of Hong Kong, there’s a new respite from the bustling city. This is a forest, although it does not look like the dense greenery that covers the nearby mountains.

This one glows. The so-called “pixel forest” consists of 3,000 LEDs suspended from plastic cables that intertwine like vines, flashing red, blue, green, yellow and pink in tandem with the music. The gleaming black floor forms a glassy lake in which each gritty shimmering crystal is reflected, creating a kind of infinity.

The breathtaking work of multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist was inspired by her experiences with VR goggles. Although she said she felt a room around her, the 60-year-old “felt very lonely,” she recalls.

Rist explores the inner chaos of our digital world through what she called “rough, raw virtual reality” for viewers to touch and explore. Walking through its pixelated forest, it’s hard not to imagine yourself standing inside a phone or laptop screen, or seeing some beauty in this shattered and blown-up version of our digital world. This experience can help visitors understand how easy it is to get lost in technology.

“Sometimes it’s an illusion. People think, ‘Oh, we’re totally in touch,’ but actually being together (personally) is something completely different,” Rist said.

The installation is among nearly 50 of her works featured in her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong.”Behind your eyelidwhich 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 pass through in order to connect with each other.

“I try to place electronics in front of the screen or off the screen so that it penetrates the room more,” Rist said.

Light from unexpected places

Born in Grubs, Switzerland in 1962, Rist has been a fixture in the fine art scene since the 1980s. But she unexpectedly entered the mainstream consciousness in 2016 when it was suggested that Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” music video was inspired by the “Ever is Over All” installation.

Beyoncé never officially credited the artist’s 1997 work, in which a carefree Rist in red heels and a blue dress gallops down the street, waving a long-stemmed red flower as inspiration. However, the scene was instantly recognizable: a woman galloping casually down a car-packed street, smashing windows with a baseball bat in her hand.

“Ever is Over All” (1997) is a two-channel video showing flower fields on one side and Rist galloping down a car-crowded street holding a flower on the other (pictured). Credit: CNN

Rist, who creates her work with a team of audio, lighting and video specialists, was flattered by the clear nod. “I thought it was cool that people who might never go to art shows suddenly got a link to a video artist,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t even know that (Always Above Everything) existed.”

According to Rist, the baseball bat brought “a certain aggression” to the scene, while her own flower-turned-weapon was a more playful commentary on female power and independence, a key theme in Rist’s work. Rist even suggested that she was attracted to her medium of choice, video art, because “men didn’t use it.”

Although both women and men participate in her videos, the former dominate. However, she objects to the idea that she prefers to profile women: “The power structure is such that we accept (women) as an exception. As for me, I’ve always tried to say, “No, it’s a person.” “

In her Hong Kong exhibition, images of female torsos are suspended from the ceiling, a pop art twist on Greek and Roman sculptures. One is a rigid yellow swimsuit with a small 90s-style TV balanced in a hollowed out crotch, and the other has light coming from where the legs should be.

Rist’s video installation Digesting Impressions (1993/2013) is a looping video played on TV in a bathing suit. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

The light emanating from the pelvis is a common motif in Rist’s art. (“This is where we saw the light when we got out of our mothers’ care,” she explained.) And her humor is also on display in her panty chandelier, which plays with the ambiguity of the word “light,” meaning and to shine, and be easy. .

“(Taz) is conflicted for us, between shame and passion, stench and joy,” Rist said, pointing to the idiom, “don’t air out your dirty laundry” and what it says about keeping our darkness, our problems, and our struggles. secret. “I wanted to make it easy.”

Exfoliating layers

In the three-story exhibition, Rist showcases his incredible range, with decade-old works side by side with new site-specific installations, and entire immersive rooms followed by individual screens. In one case, a tiny screen the size of a ping-pong ball is embedded in the floor, showing a six-minute looped 1994 video of “Selbstlos im Lavabad” (“Selfless in a Lava Bath”) of a screaming woman trapped in a loop. fiery purgatory.

Many of the exhibits were created decades ago, but Rist’s art is somehow “always adapted to the latest technology,” said exhibition curator Tobias Berger. He singles out 1996’s “Sip My Ocean,” a two-channel video that, in its original form, could have been shown on a much smaller projector. The work now occupies two walls, from floor to ceiling, on a screen the size of a movie theater. Berger added that advances in audio technology are also giving the works a new dimension, “so even the older pieces in each show are almost new pieces for specific locations.”

Central Hong Kong Chandelier (2021) sits next to Big Skin (2022), blurring the mundane and fantastic. Credit: Rebecca Cairns/CNN

Initially launched in 2019, before the pandemic, the exhibition took two years to create. But Berger believes the lockdown and anxiety caused by Covid-19 has made the show and its recurring theme of human connection more relevant than ever. Rist herself experienced isolation in preparation for the exhibition, spending 21 days in quarantine last year to get to Hong Kong and get a feel for the gallery space.

Rist created two completely new works for the exhibition. Outside, a massive ledge transforms the former prison courtyard that houses the gallery into an “urban clearing” where Rist hopes people will gather and socialize in person.

And inside, the new Big Skin installation ties together the central metaphor of the exhibition: membranes. Translucent white “skins” are suspended from the ceiling, and video projections depicting galaxies and natural landscapes are played on their surface – a mixture of real footage and animation. Like floating clouds, they absorb and emit light, creating eerie shadows even when they feature soothing scenes of autumn 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 the charm of why people are so attracted to her work: there is nothing fake here, everything is real,” he said.

"Colored water tiger balm" (2022) is an outdoor video installation created for a space outside the JC Contemporary Gallery in Tai Kwun, Hong Kong.

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

The final room, “The Apartment,” gives the former women’s prison cell the feel of home: a dining table and chairs, sofa, sideboard, and daybed surrounded by a jumble of homemade knick-knacks, many from Hong Kong and a painting by a local artist. But the projections move through space like ghosts, a setting more eerie than familiar.

As in a pixel forest, Rist immerses the viewer in a fabulous combination of light, color and sound that spoils everyday life. It gives weight to emotions and ideas—and in doing so, gives body to the invisible lines that connect us.

“We are much more alike than different,” she said.

Behind your eyelidwill be shown at JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong until November 27, 2022.

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