On video art and pants or video art on pants – Pipilotti Rist’s Eyeball Massage at the Hayward Gallery

by Ann Jones

I like video art. I’ve bored enough people by talking about art to know that lots of people don’t, but I do. And I like artists’ film. And I like art that challenges expectations and art that questions traditional use of the gallery space. Bring them all together in the right way and the result can be genuinely exciting – think Antony McCall’s solid light works (which I wrote about when MostlyFilm first started), or Banks Violette’s as yet untitled (TriStar Horse) projection onto water vapour which will stay with me a long time – so I fully expected to love Eyeball Massage, Pipilotti Rist’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.

Things get off to a pretty good start. The first thing on view in the gallery is a chandelier of pants, onto and into which video is projected. What’s not to like? Pants. Art. That’s the sort of ridiculous combination I can get behind, especially when the pants in question aren’t the frilly lacy ones designed for show but sturdy sensible ones we’d rather stayed well hidden. And the rest of the room – a small, vulnerable looking model of a suburban house (which looked somehow American to me but is apparently the ideal home of Swiss suburbia) with wall sized projections around it – initially has me hooked. It’s as I give this work more time that things start to change. A video in the house shows a family at the dining table. They eat their dinner from plates that are on fire. At this point the word “kooky” creeps into my head and doubts start to set in. I confess that at this point – far too early in the show for it to be a reasonable response – I also start to browse rather than really looking. There is a video here that requires attention. I should read the subtitles but my mind keeps wandering and I move on. I stroll up the ramp to the back gallery where I enjoy the stuffed clothes-shaped cushions inviting me to lounge on some trousers or a T-shirt (when I say I enjoy them I mean they make me smile, they look too mean as cushions to persuade me to brave the inevitable pins and needles associated with lounging about on the gallery floor; in my book, it takes at least a bean bag for that indignity to be worth considering). The work here seems less narrative; images float in the space catching the hanging screens of diaphanous fabric, breaking up the images and creating an abstracted wonderland that is genuinely quite beautiful.

In the final space – the upper galleries house Mental States, an exhibition of paintings by George Condo – lots of separate works vie for attention: large seashells and open handbags become receptacles for video, a baby’s cot holds a bomb that itself holds a video, Rist calls up from a video in a hole in the floor. There are interesting questions here about the use of space, the containment of the work within it, the use of objects and images as ways to frame and situate moving image works and the role of the audience within the larger space of the gallery

A sizeable part of this space is set aside for a large scale projection in which the audience, lounging on cushions propped against a mirrored wall, seems totally immersed in colourful images; the mirror works well, transforming the space and surrounding us with images. We find ourselves at ground level, the grass greener than green, a pig snuffles along, its snout almost touching the camera; here the sky is blue, the apple trees laden with fruit and the flowers in bloom. This saturated-colour idyll is interspersed with hints of imperfection and with bodily images, sometimes too close to make much sense of. The work is exuberant and celebratory but with troubling moments (the bomb in a baby’s cot may have already alerted you to this). From the number of people propped up on the slightly more generous cushions in this space, this work seemed to be holding the audience’s attention the longest. For me it lacked the magic of the projections onto sheer fabric of the second space but the clarity of the images and the super-saturated colours are engaging and it functions better as a social space.

Though this final room feels bitty in some ways there is a lot here to like and on the whole I wish I could ignore my doubts and just enjoy the images and the playfulness of works that overlap and invade one another’s space. But that word “kooky” that invaded my thoughts in the first room is back with a vengeance. While celebrating the fast moving images of the video age, the work also focuses on the human body including fast moving closeup images of fragments of Rist’s own body projected onto the floor. In much of her work, Rist explores ideas of femininity and female identity in a way that doesn’t really work for me. The close-up explorations of the body seem like an attempt to question approaches to the representation of women’s bodies on film but in a room that feels a lot like a playground the end result seems trite. When the likes of Joan Jonas and Marina Abramović got naked for performances in the 1970s they challenged the expectations of their audience in a very direct way and made clear feminist statement; when Rist does it somehow it feels more like pop video than subversion. In this respect I think for me the problem lies in part with the pace of the work; the work requires time if one is to get beyond the seductive image-making but I can feel the jump cuts chipping away at my attention span and I need to be in a different world.

In the project space, Rist’s 1997 video installation Ever is Over All is showing. This work, an overlapping two screen projection into a corner, features a woman walking along city streets smashing car windows with what appears to be a flower. This was the work of Rist’s I knew best before seeing the show and was probably the first artist’s video I got to know first via YouTube. It’s good to see it projected here with its frayed overlapping edges but, for me at least, this too has lost its charm.

Outside the gallery, a string of lights illuminates the early evening darkness each bulb shaded by a pair of pants. Text in the paving names the work as Hiplights or Enlighted Hips and says that Rist ‘hopes the lights will make people smile, but also think: “We are all born from between our mothers’ legs. From there we first see the light of the world.”‘ I have a feeling if I’d read that first I might have skipped the exhibition. Certainly for me it seems to encapsulate the feeling the show has left me with.

Rist is trading in clichés; dressing them up prettily isn’t enough to distract me. Nor is projecting video onto the toilet floor. Ultimately the whole exhibition feels rather slight to me. It’s very well put together and it’s good fun – there were large parts of the exhibition I really enjoyed – and I do think Rist’s early use of video challenged perceptions of moving image in the gallery but, killjoy that I am, I want more now.

I came away liking Tacita Dean’s FILM and its strict adherence to the careful slowness of analogue image-making just that little bit more.

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

About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at ImageObjectText.com and occasionally contributes to MostlyFilm.com – writing about art, mostly.

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