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You’re kidding: Rembrandt and Pipilotti Rist have things in common?

Gina Fairley

What could this world-renowned 17th century Dutch Master have in common with pioneering video artist Pipilotti Rist?
You’re kidding: Rembrandt and Pipilotti Rist have things in common?

Installation view of Pipilotti Rist installation, popular with the public for their immersive qualities which blend nature, the body and technology.

You'd be mistaken if you said that the Dutch Master, Rembrandt, and his coterie of buddies from the Dutch Golden Age had absolutely nothing in common with the pioneering Swiss video artist, Pipilotti Rist.

Unlike past pairings of the Sydney International Art Series of Blockbusters, there are a number of uncanny parallels in this year’s choice of Rembrandt and Rist. Put simply, both were innovators and influencers, and they aimed at democratising the art experience. 


Innovators pioneering art historical moments

‘There are just a few hundred years between them, Pipi and Rembrandt, but she is an innovator in the same way the Dutch were, just using different technology,’ said Natasha Bullock, MCA Senior Curator.

As one of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions in their living rooms, Rist’s work references the history of new media, with her early videos presented on monitors and her recent works projected across ceilings, floors and walls.

From the beginning she has been an innovator, Bullock said. ‘She was one of the first female video artists to incorporate images of sexuality into their work. Part of that was tapping into the zeitgeist of the 1980s and a combination of Expressionism, Feminism and pop culture.’

Bullock has been working for the past 18 months on the exhibition, Pipilotti Rist: Sip my ocean. She described the exhibition as a technical feat. ‘People think video shows are easy – just put a projector and screen up on the wall – but they are incredibly complicated. We are going to have a team on ground for four weeks prior to opening just to do all the digital mapping.’

While the install of the exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum at the Art Gallery of NSW may not have the same technical demands, it similarly explores a pioneering moment in art history.

Curator Peter Raissis explained: ‘One of significant things about Dutch art in the Golden Age is that it represents one of the turning points in the history of western art.

‘Art in the Netherlands was made for a rising middle class and the audience was everyday citizens. It wasn’t a courtly culture or dominated by the Catholic Church. Because of this situation of tolerance and intellectual freedoms, the artists were really able to innovate – in developing new types of subject matter,’ he said.

The exhibition is the first broad survey of Dutch Masters to come to Sydney, and features 78 loans from the iconic Rijksmuseum.

Ludolf Bakhuizen, Warships in a heavy storm c1695; oil on canvas, 150 x 227 cm Rijksmuseum, purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt

Water and landscape

The use of a water as a means to define our place in the world is another connection between the artists. 

Raissis said that it was the Dutch who were the first to appreciate nature in art for its own sake. ‘It is such a given now, but the Dutch were the first. This kind of naturalistic image had never been seen before in European art, and it predates John Constable by 200 years.’

Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of the genre, and wanted to describe the look and feel of his country, while Ludolf Bakhuizen was one of the leading maritime painters of the age. His painting, Warships in a heavy storm c1695 will be included the Sydney show.

‘No society was more self-confident than the Dutch in this period of burgeoning prosperity and influence in the world. Paintings of ships flying the Dutch flag on storm-tossed seas and the enduring Dutch fascination with the sea is linked with Dutch maritime superiority and the wealth of trading success that was sucked into a tiny territory – smaller than Tasmania – and made the Dutch Republic the wealthiest country in Europe in 17th century,’ said Raissis.

Similarly, Bullock describes Rist’s work as situating the self in the broader world. ‘Water is another way that she explores this idea that we are just part of the world,’ she said.

Pipilotti Rist, Sip My Ocean (still), 1996 Two-channel video installation with sound, color: projectors, players, sound system, paint, carpet, sound by Anders Guggisberg and Pipilotti Rist after Wicked Game (1989) by Chris Isaak; Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist

Her iconic work Sip My Ocean (still), 1996, shown at the Venice Biennale, will come to Sydney, along with Rist’s most recent work, 4th Floor to Mildness from the Mildness Family, 2016, which premiered at the New Museum in New York.

‘You come in, take your shoes off and lie down on a bed and look up at these two lilies. It’s like running a massive Airbnb,’ said Bullock.

Pipilotti Rist, 4th Floor to Mildness from the Mildness Family, 2016 Installation view, New Museum, New York, US, 2016 Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist, photograph: EPW Studio

Flower wars

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the artists is their use of flowers. ‘Tulips feature a lot in Pipi’s work,’ said Bullock. Indeed, the whole video Ever Is Over All (1997) is centered around the artist casually walking down the street with a flower (made from metal) which she uses to smash the windows of parked cars with great satisfaction.

Pipilotti Rist, Ever Is Over All (still) 1997, Single channel projectors, players, sound system, paint, carpet; Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist

Similarly, “Tulipmania” emerged during the Dutch Golden Age, where precious tulip bulbs were exchanged for the price of a house.

Raisses said that if you were to calculate the cost of the flowers in the painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem, the total would have been more than the cost of the painting itself.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still life with flowers in a glass vase, 1665– 70 oil on copper, 54.5 x 36.5 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A van der Hoop Bequest)

Both the Dutch Masters and Pililotti Rist use flowers to tell a story. For the Dutch, the types of flowers map out early trade, speak of prosperity, worldly matters and bounty. ‘Most of these blooms were new at the time. And they took the still life to new heights. Their flowers arranged together were highly contrived, that is they don’t bloom at the same time,’ said Raissis.

Pipilotti Rist, Administrating Eternity, 2011; Installation view, Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage Hayward Gallery London, London, 2011; Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © Pipilotti Rist, photograph: Linda Nylind


The way Rist and the Dutch Masters use light is another strong parallel. Bullock described Rist talking about her works as ‘paintings that move’.

‘While she doesn’t use a paint brush, she uses light, a keyboard and camera to create the same kinds of effects as a painting – this is one of the parallels with Rembrandt,’ said Bullock.

‘Light is such an important part of video art; artists usually take the greens and blues out of the prism so you don’t look sick, but Pipi adds colour back in to the spectrum of the video to intensive the viewer experience,’ she continued.

In that intense pop and luminosity of Rist’s work we can see a parallel with the innovative rendition of light by the Dutch, as Raisses described: ‘That melting quality of light that transforms the everyday into something memorable and transcendent.’

Both play with the trickery of illusion and the emotion of light.


Raisses said that the Dutch painters of the Golden Age increasingly concentrated on the everyday world – the visible world around them – as witnessed in the rise of genre painting. ‘It is often said of Dutch painting it is like a window opening on society. We know more about what the Dutch looked like than any other society,’ he said.

Good examples include the painting, Tailors workshop (19661) by Quiringh van Brekelenkam and Pieter de Hooch's painting of a ubiquitous Dutch house, Three women and a man in a yard behind a house c1663–65 – an iconic image that many have grown up with.

‘The Dutch were always scrubbing or sweeping. The saying “Every picture tells a story” – it is a Dutch invention,’ said Raissis. ‘Van Brekelenkam's painting is a humble interior, but there are paintings that decorate the walls; paintings were everywhere in the Dutch republic and were not reserved for the elite,’ said Raissis.

Quiringh van Brekelenkam, Tailor's workshop 1661 oil on canvas, 66 x 53.5 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A van der Hoop Bequest)

Similarly, Bullock said that Rist is driven by her need to have her works experienced by the public. ‘For her to get an audience is a really big deal, because if she is not talking to people she thinks what is she doing is failing. She describes herself as a “service worker”.

‘She creates these worlds where people lay on the floor – for her this is a about a sense of commonality, to come together and experience the world. She feels art can heal and communicate,’ Bullock said.

On the third level of the MCA the gallery will be turned into a huge apartment where projections will be screen on couches and furnishings. ‘It will be a wonderful experience because, literally, people will have projections washing over their skin.’


Rist visited Sydney in January this year to determine how she was going to change the gallery architecture at the MCA to accommodate her exhibition. ‘I don’t like that word "immersive" because it is overused in art world parlance, but the truth is Rist uses that world herself. “I want my works to be as immersive as possible; to function like lullabies so that people feel that they are transported into an environment",' quoted Bullock.

The MCA exhibition will use a lot of fabric to soften the gallery space and will plunge viewers into the experience to explore that relationship between nature, body and technology.

‘It is quite hard to make architecture disappear. There are no walls in this exhibition,’ said Bullock.

Raissis said he worked with exhibition designer Richard Johnson to create the space at the AGNSW, and is inspired by the interiors of Rijksmuseum. ‘The Hall of Honour runs like a cathedral nave with side chapels or rooms down the centre of the Rijksmuseum; it’s where the best pictures are hung.

'Several of those will come to Sydney. We are using the same colour grey walls and black lacquer on the wall reveals and the exhibition moves through eight rooms to explore the kind of subject making during that Golden era. A central gallery will focus on Rembrandt.

‘I can’t think of a place in the world where you can stand in room and see great Vermeers and great Rembrandts at the same time,' said Raissis.

Clearly, both exhibitions will be a memorable experience.

Iconic paintings to be seen in Sydney: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn's Self-portrait as the apostle Paul'1661 oil on canvas, 91 x 77 cm Rijksmuseum, de Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland, and Johannes Vermeer's Woman reading a Letter 1663, oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

Pipilotti Rist: Sip my ocean
1 November 2017 – 18 February 2018
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum
11 November 2017 – 18 February 2018
Art Gallery of NSW

Both exhibitions are ticketed, and are exclusive to Sydney as part of the Sydney International Art Series.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.


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