Just a day before the opening of her commissioned multimedia installation Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), organized by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator, Department of Media, which remains on view till February 2, 2009 at the MoMA’s atrium, Pipilotti Rist sat down with Rail publisher Phong Bui at the Museum Café to talk about her work.
Phong Bui (Rail): I remember seeing your exhibit Welcome to the Pleasure Dome: Himalaya’s Sister’s Living Room at Luhring Augustine in 2000 which, even though you have shown for a long time, was your New York debut.
Pipilotti Rist: The first time I showed in New York was in 1998 when I was one of six finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize, with my single-channel video installation “Sip My Ocean,” featured at the Guggenheim SoHo. But you’re right as far as a whole installation that was my first exhibit in New York. And it was like a functioning apartment with a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and other objects in it.
Rail: Which made me think of a very famous collage by Richard Hamilton, “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” made in 1956 with a muscle man and naked woman; you remember?
Rist: Yeah, he’s holding a giant Tootsie Roll Pop and she’s holding her breast. There was a television, poster, tape recorder, and so on, in the room.
Rail: Right. The reason why I mentioned it is because it’s a montage of images derived from specific contexts, brought together to almost sardonic effect. On one hand, there was a kind of realism in the images, and yet, on the other hand, the composition and context repudiate traditional realism altogether. I wonder whether, knowing that you studied graphic design in Vienna, you have ever made collage before making film/video?
Rist: Thinking back now, I never really did any traditional collage, but I did work with Super 8 films, which require the constant awareness of time lapse and heavy editing. In a way, that was a kind of collage. And certainly in Himalaya’s installation, I had to deal with background, foreground, middle ground, and working with color, wallpapers with imagery of an interior packed with things like Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s cramped living spaces along with furniture from different social classes and different periods. So that was a form of collage also.
Rail: What’s particularly compelling about this piece, I think, is that in the last decade or so, your work is increasingly susceptible, gaining a certain kind of greater receptiveness to scale. And scale is not measurable through relational units that make up a legible proportion. Scale is rather a visceral response to space. I mean, there is a big leap from, let’s say, a tiny video seen though a small hole in “Selfless in the Bath of Lava” at P.S. 1 to this incredibly monumental piece. Yet the scale retains the same rigor.
Rist: I’m pleased that you thought of it in that way, but what I think of scale it has to do with only a question or matter of concentration. When we look at something intensely, we can only imagine it to be in that specific field of vision, whether it’s big or small. Scale is not given; it is always a question of how we perceive it or how we feel it at that particular moment. One scientist recently said, “How can we survive on this planet?” There are too many people; what are we going to do with population increase? He thought that the best solution was that we would, in three, four generations, need only one-third the energy, one-third the street size, and create a third of the pollution.
Rail: So we become Lilliputian again?
Rist: Not a bad idea, but I think if you lose a certain innocence you then have to make it up with experience.
Rail: It’s sad but true. Let’s go back to your early work, which emerged out of MTV culture in the ’80s. There was this expressiveness and dissonance in the way you applied the image with sound, whereas the recent work in the last decade has become more immersive in greater fluidity and lyricism. It’s a different kind of negotiation with form and timing.
Rist: Well, I think people tend to forget that there had been music films before MTV. And they did amazing things with such a small budget. But in terms of scale, the image projected from the monitor is seen as a movement, which goes twenty meters in one second. For our perception, it’s like twenty times faster, even if it’s the same footage. So, whether I speed it up or slow it down, it’s all in relation to the size. Take a fly for example; her heartbeat is more than three times faster than a human’s. But if you want to clap her with a fly swatter, she probably sees it coming in slow motion.
Rail: I also was thinking about the difficulty for a singular work of art or a group of works to hold up the immense space of the Atrium. It didn’t quite work with Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” or Cy Twombly’s large painting from the late ‘60s. The only two exceptions that I can think of were Dan Perjovschi’s drawing installation and Martin Puryear’s group of sculptures, including his “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” and “Ad Astra,” which was made specifically for the space in his retrospective last year. But as far as video is concerned, you would be the exceptional first artist making that space look and feel so intimate.
Rist: Yoshio Taniguchi was considered a little bit old-fashioned by some people, although he is an important figure to many, including Seijima and Nishizawa/SANAA and the New York-based firm Gensler who designed the New Museum. Taniguchi said, “Give me money and I will make you a nice museum. Give me money and I will make it disappear.” So you can see that, as much as he wanted the space to look elegant and airy, he almost intended for the work to look ephemeral.
Rail: So you have meditated on these architectural facts and spatial considerations for some time.
Rist: At least five years. It initially started with Barbara London, who asked me to create a site-specific piece for the museum. My first proposal was to make a piece like a landscape that runs along the inside of the space between the walls, but I was encouraged to propose something more immersive and bigger as a project. It took me awhile, but I finally chose the Atrium, simply because it reminds me of a church’s interior where you’re constantly reminded that the spirit is good and the body is bad. This spirit goes up in space but the body remains on the ground. This piece is really about bringing those two differences together.
Rail: And it’s a good reason to have this big round cushion so people can sit down and contemplate it.
Rist: Exactly. Also if you are tired of other exhibitions, you can lay down.
Rail: I also noticed that the sound is installed right underneath the seating island, which is also designed by you.
Rist: Yeah, that’s because acoustically, it’s a difficult room. The only solution we came up with, since it’s impossible to fill the whole room with the sound, was to have the music coming from below and around, instead of coming from above. It’s six minutes of rather low sound, and then four minutes melodic. Composed by Anders Guggisberg, who is a painter/sculptor. Normally he would be here but he is now working on the sound of my first feature film.
Rail: As the title of “Pour Your Body Out” suggests, one senses that the physicality and simultaneity of the two bodies, one human, one animal, perform the same act of eating an apple as one does with the sequences of imagery that follow and fill the three screens like a swimming pool. They’re at once playful and lyrical. In spite of the interplay between realism and abstraction, the hypnotic and repetitive sound of the music, which reminds me of the low frequencies of the whale or the dolphin, somehow enhances and adds to the interlaced fluidity as a whole. I felt that’s what gave the poetic tonality to the piece.
Rist: Cool. I’ll tell Anders. And that was our wish, to have familiar sounds. I never thought of the whale, but certainly the sounds of the moving fluids inside of our bodies, blouh blah bluh blak, that we don’t pay much attention to normally. That’s my idea of music, like the music that you hear in discotheques, although it’s a different environment, it still inspires you to hear your body inside. That’s how people get into their own rhythm and dance. Similarly, we wanted to create a melody of heartbeat, the sound of a whale, as you said, things moving inside your stomach, etc.
Rail: Do you think, having been a musician, working with a band early on, intensified your awareness of sound, in varieties of experimental ways?
Rist: Yeah. It was more the task of my boyfriends to collect different kinds of music and bring them to me. I had, over the years, all different boyfriends. [Laughs.] You know, I never had a one-night stand but I made a list recently. I’ve kissed thirty-three people but have been with only twenty. Half of them were musicians and the other half had at least a very good music collection. And now I have a child with the one who has a better music collection than any previous one!
Rail: I’m thinking of your early piece “(Entlastungen) Pipilottis Fehler” (1988), and I can’t help but hear the lyrics of the Buggles song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Do you remember?
Rist: Yeah, I do. Ahhh! [Sings.] “Video killed the radio star! Video killed the radio star!”
Rail: “Oh, a oh oh oh…” [Laughter]
Rist: “In my mind and in my car. We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.”
Rail: That was when I came to America, and I believe it was the first music video shown on MTV in 1981.
Rist: Ahh, that was the big hit then. How can I forget?
Rail: Yeah. Nam Jun Paik thought of the moon as the first TV, and it’s interesting that the first images that appeared on MTV were a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing with the MTV logo on the flag in color. The crunching guitar riff was really cool.
Rist: You know, MTV didn’t really come to Switzerland until 1985, but I spent a lot of time watching it.
Rail: I know that you were involved with the band Les Reines Prochaines. What sort of thing did you do with them and how long did it last?
Rist: Les Reines Prochaines means “The Next Queens”, and, in fact, they’re still performing. Anyway, film’s in the background. It was good at the time—between 1988 to 1994—because I learned how to overcome my fears on stage. But it’s not my world. It doesn’t fit my temperament, really.
Rail: Was that when you went back and re-connected to your film experience in college, which was…
Rist: …1980 to 1985. There were three of us—my two girlfriends and me. We all took a video class in order to have access to the editing machine, which in those days was very expensive and heavy. For me it was a natural process to go from Super 8 to video, because in video you can control every step, whereas in Super 8 you can’t do too many things with no money. Plus, you always have to give it over to the laboratory, in which case you’ll never quite know how it will turn out. Anyway, I sent the video to a film festival only so that I would get the ticket for free. It wasn’t until the filmers discovered and liked my work that I began to take my work a bit more seriously. In those years I didn’t think of myself as an artist; I just thought, “I’m a graphic designer, a filmer for rooms.” I couldn’t imagine that I could be an installation artist as a profession. And that only happened gradually over time.
Rail: Jonas Mekas also thinks of himself as a filmer. In any case, could you talk a bit about the way you applied different changes of speed to the imagery, as well as color and sound, for instance, in “I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much,” I’m wondering whether it underwent a heavy editing process, or if it was immediate.
Rist: It only took me a couple of weeks and I did the whole thing myself. I was in heavy love pain, and in a way this work saved my life. I remember when I had it finished; I thought it really showed what and how I felt at that moment. It was a complete survival strategy! [Laughs.]
Rail: One of the more pronounced aspects of your work is the various presentations of the human body.
Rist: Yeah, the body is also the philosophical being; it’s the person with no social class, no time, no gender; it’s just the human. Even if politically everything were just, in an ideal world, there would still be our impossibility to obtain our wish to be synchronized with other people, to completely understand each other, or to know why we are mortal. Often we don’t, you know, and all these subjects would stay with the body, don’t you agree?
Rail: Absolutely. Do you feel that your work in the last few years has become less edgy and more calm?
Rist: Maybe. You’re right, it has become calmer. But if you will see the movie that I’m working on right now, it’s not calm at all.
Rail: So is it a real feature?
Rist: Yeah, it’s 77 minutes long, financed by the film world and not by the art world. I made a certain buyout, as a person, ’cause in the film I am only hired as the director. It’s a completely different structure. How you share the risk in film is completely different than in art, where you don’t share the risk. The risk stays with the artist or with the gallery, or etc. and that’s why you can never do really huge budgets in a way. A film is a hundred and forty installations in one. [Laughs.]
Rail: So it is a real challenge.
Rist: Yeah, it is. I felt that if I wanted to go a step further in narration or in picture making, I had to jump into another world a bit. Everything is different from what I’ve been doing up to this point, including the structures of the process, the labor division. It’s like managing a whole soccer team. When I go home I sleep day and night in the sound studio. That’s also why Anders Guggisberg did not come here because he had to stay behind to work on the film; we wanted to send it off to different festivals by middle of December. The Match Factory, a World Films Sales Company, who represents Christian Petzold, Fatih Akin, and many others, will present my film.
Rail: Shirin (Neshat) is in the process of editing her first feature as we speak.
Rist: Actually she co-produced with the same Austrian Film Production as I did: Coop 99.
Rail: You know Nam Jun Paik mentioned your work to me once at an opening as early as 2000.
Rist: Wow. I never dared to contact him but I have once written a foreword in a catalogue of his work, which is like a glorification of his work; maybe that was why he knew about my work. I said, for example, “Nam Jun Paik flies with a bicycle in the air and I can sit behind on the bicycle and we watch all the people in the houses together,” and so on. But I’m so sorry I didn’t contact him.
Rail: I know that in the past you have acknowledged your admiration for a few artists, including Barbara Kruger, though at the press conference for your last exhibit at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), you said, “I am Jessica Stockholder.” Although I could see the attraction in terms of how to deal with architectural space and sweeping gestures that would bring fragmentary objects together as one coherent pictorial unity, I’m curious what other impulse is behind it?
Rist: I always have extreme identity crisis in such situations. I don’t know who I am anymore. Should I be somebody they expect me to be? So it calms me to say that I’m somebody else. In other words, it helps me to not be so afraid, but of course I chose her because I admire her work, how she turns the thing upside-down, sideways, even with large objects in it, makes it look very easy, and effortless. She really turns the world upside-down and makes it look as logical and, at the same time, crazy as the way the world is. That’s also what I wish to do with my work.
Rail: So would you say that sort of juxtaposing identity is a playful aspect of the child? I mean you’ve done the same thing with many of your soundtracks.
Rist: Yeah. A child can say “I’m now dead,” and he’ll play dead; whatever he says, he’d just do it without thinking. For example, how we’re talking now, but when we separate, you have influenced me and I have influenced you. So for the rest of my life, I will have a little piece of you with me. We are always reflecting the other. For me it’s better if people go into a work and don’t think of the artist because it would help them understand the work better. In addition to the sense of touch, seeing, and listening, in this piece I feel there is an increased sense of smell and taste. There is also the interplay of images and supple abstraction, which is the contrary of the early work. I had a phase where I was extremely interested in the mistakes of the machines. I thought if you disturb the machines you find yourself being disturbed, similar to when we are half-awake or when we are nervous; we see things differently—or sharper. That was a phase when I was more interested in going into this shortsighted view, close to the structure, and also to break up what we think of the in-between, nice and not nice. Why do we love landscapes, but then have a problem with our wrinkles, for example. Aren’t our wrinkles also a landscape? I’m interested in why it is that we are always judging everything, bad and good, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, etc. I’m thinking if you know what is good and the others have to believe the same thing.
Rail: It’s another form of democracy. And it’s quite demonstrative in this piece. Without being too didactic or nostalgic, I feel, in spite of the explicit yet ambivalent contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque that one sees in the pairing images of the young woman and the pig, who essentially performed the same act of biting the apples in the meadow, there is a subtle sense of harmony between man and nature, which seemingly to suggests a real serious concern for the environment. I especially like how fluid it is, the way the ending melts right into the beginning.
Rist: Or everyone will see a different beginning or ending for him or herself, and it doesn’t matter since it’s a loop, which has its own rhythm.
Rail: True. Since we just spoke about scale, which is to say different artists deal with it differently, I want to ask you whether you’re familiar with Sylvia Bachli’s work?
Rist: It’s funny you brought her name up. She’s my favorite Swiss artist, and I know her personally.
Rail: That’s awesome. I admire her work very much in its deft, delicate sensibility and how she invokes form, and the economy with which she puts it to use.
Rist: Yes, how she places the non-space between things. My other favorite artist is Vera Chytilová. You remember “Daisies”?
Rail: Yeah. It’s a masterpiece and it makes perfect sense that you love that film.
Rist: She will be eighty next year, and I will do an installation of “Daisies”. When I first approached her I remember saying to her, “Would you be interested if I do an interpretation of your work?” And she said, “Oh, art is only for rich people! Nobody sees it! Film is more democratic.” But then after three months she said, “Yes, do it.” So next year in Prague it’ll hopefully happen.