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Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery

Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery

Art with an amazingly high feel-good factor

Still from Pipilotti Rist's 'Ever is Over All', one of the most delightful videos ever made

In 1997 the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist produced one of the most delightful videos ever made, and it won her the Biennale. Ever is Over All shows a young woman skipping down a city street gaily smashing car windows with a red-hot poker; and since it is shaped like a knobkerry, the flower makes a surprisingly convincing weapon.

Oh dear, though, here comes a policewoman; but instead of admonishing or arresting the vandal, the bobby gives her an encouraging smile, salutes and walks on by. 

On the adjoining screen meanwhile, close-ups of the orange bloom reveal that, although its overall shape is phallic, the head is made up of myriad tiny flowers which cluster together like the many breasts of the Greek goddess Artemis – so the plant carries intriguingly androgynous associations. Girl power and flower power unite in a feminist fairytale in which the sisterhood reigns supreme. Sympathetic women replace male authority figures and cars (boys' toys and symbols of relentless consumerism) become fair game. Inducing a joyous sense of relief and feeling of empowerment, this is art whose feel-good factor is especially high.

Rist’s work is all about release from the many constraints that can make life a misery. Hung from the numerous lamps strung across the concourse are pairs of knickers and the first thing to greet you inside the gallery is a chandelier (pictured right) festooned with white underwear. Referring to knickers as "the temple of the abdomen”, Rist explains that “this part of the body is very sacred, as it is the site of our entrance into the world, the centre of sexual pleasure and the location of the exits of the body’s garbage, the proof that our internal cleaning machine is miraculously working”. Getting one’s kit off is obviously high on the agenda, but the drab concrete walls of the Hayward bunker are not a sympathetic setting for unabashed hedonism. To get in the mood, I suggest starting your visit upstairs in the Project Space where Ever is Over All is being projected alongside earlier videos. 

Meanwhile, Suburb Brain (1999) sets the scene inside the main gallery. Projected onto the wall above a model of a nondescript suburban bungalow is a video of the artist recalling her childhood and voicing her thoughts about the nuclear family. "My blood is boiling... it seems like a trap to me," she concludes, as she speeds along in a car watching a beautiful sunset through the window. From the outside, the sleepy suburb she has left behind looks tranquil, but inside apparently things are getting quite hellish; projected onto one wall of the bungalow, a video reveals that family life is in flames – literally.

Conformism may be living hell, but damnation also awaits those who transgress. Set into the floor of the next gallery is a tiny projection of a naked woman engulfed in boiling magma, like one of the damned in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (pictured left: Selfless in the Bath of Lava). Reaching up towards us, the diminutive sinner pleads for help: "I am a worm and you, you are a flower. You would have done everything better. Help me. Forgive me." The situation seems more comic than tragic, though, especially as we have been accorded the role of God overseeing the fate of this ne'er-do-well. One suspects that Rist doesn’t take the threat of eternal damnation too seriously; the piece is not about fear of the afterlife but, she says, “the severity with which we treat ourselves and punish others for our mistakes”.  

Within the womb of the Catholic church, her message felt liberating and courageous

“I have realised that we are part animal,” she says, and in video after video encourages us to accept and enjoy our bodies; since she is a woman, this mainly involves exposing female flesh, which provides ample opportunity for voyeurs to ogle the female body. This, I suspect, accounts more for the popularity of her work than its feminist message, which can be remarkably in your face. Projected onto an oval screen at eye level, for instance, is an image resembling choice cuts of juicy meat. It turns out to be close-ups of a vagina presented like a pendant of jewel-like splendour while, in another video, floods of red liquid celebrate the beauty of menstrual blood. 

Next you can sink into soft cushions scattered over deep carpeting and allow yourself to be engulfed by a multi-screen extravaganza featuring a young woman behaving like an animal (pictured left and below: details from Lobe of the Lung). A hog ambles into an orchard to feast on the windfalls that have dropped from trees heavily laden with fruit; then, crawling on all fours through the grass, comes a naked woman similarly snuffling for ripe apples. As teeth bite into crisp fruit and juices flow over moist lips, enhanced colour gives the hedonistic scene a psychedelic intensity. Images include a naked swimmer, fields of bright-red tulips, flowing white drapery and abstract patterns intercut with shots of petals filling open mouths, damp worms slithering through dry fingers, water caressing soft skin and rotting fruit squelching between naked toes.

In 2005 I lay on the floor of San Stae in Venice watching similarly luscious scenes unfold on the ceiling overhead. Most Venetian churches are decorated with frescoes of the elect seated in pale robes among celestial clouds, but that year during the Biennale, San Stae played host to Rist’s video of naked bodies writhing over ripe fruit among exotic flowers. In that context, her video seemed to be offering a vision of heaven as a place from which censorship is absent – so that shame is eradicated, nudity becomes innocent and Eve is exonerated from the sins pinned on her by the patriarchy.

Within the womb of the Catholic church, her message felt both liberating and courageous but, in the context of the South Bank, her challenge doesn’t have a clearly identifiable target. Sexism may be rife here, but it is virtually invisible and easily overlooked. And in the absence of an oppressive regime, Rist’s orgiastic imagery seems overblown and overheated. I went home feeling in need of a shower to scrub off all the sticky substances which seemed to be adhering to my skin, as though I’d been coated in candy floss.

  • Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage is at the Hayward Gallery, London until 8 January, 2012


Very on point. Excellent review. Thanks Sarah

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