Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean

Gina Fairley

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist permits us to dream and lose ourselves in her immersive video works, but is it all colour and no punch?
Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean

Exhibition installation view: Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist; photo ArtsHub.

The survey exhibition of pioneering Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has been greatly anticipated. Many have had one-off experiences of her immersive projections – most notably her room-sized multi-screen work Mercy Garden Retour Skin, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, and Worry will vanish revelation at the National Gallery of Australia earlier this year. Australian audiences have been hungry for more.


The MCA has satisfied that hunger with its summer blockbuster, Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean. It opened in what could be deemed 'blockbuster week', alongside Hyper Real at the National Gallery of Australia, Gerhard Richter and Yayoi Kusama at Queens;and's Gallery of Modern Art, the Tarnanthi Indigenous art festival a little earlier in the month in Adelaide, and across town at the Art Gallery of NSW, Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age.

It is a diverse smorgasbord and the competition is fierce. Institutions are clearly willing to throw big money at their summer shows, and Pipilotti Rist is no exception. This is a slick, technically sophisticated, audience friendly, awe-inspiring, big-bang-big-dollar exhibition.

Featuring 44 pieces, it is the most comprehensive collection of Rist's unique video works to be presented in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, I suspect I might be the only person to find this exhibition somewhat inconsistent, not in its presentation or the work itself, but in the experience it offered. Does that make for a lesser exhibition, or is it merely reflective of the nuances across an artist’s career?

I have vacillated on this point in writing this review. The high points in Rist’s MCA exhibition are oh so high – they offered awe, were transportive, and opened up understanding. But maybe the impact is diluted when her work is presented in volume.

The two environments, Pixelwald Motherboard <Pixelforest Mutterplatte> (2016) and 4th Floor to Mildness (2016), were some of the best I have experienced. They ticked all the boxes as signature Rist works.

To walk through Pixelwald Motherboard with its 3000 suspended LED lights that alter colour, is truly magical. The work was produced in collaboration with light designer Kaori Kuwabara and has been envisaged as evoking the sensation of a television screen exploding into a room, its pixels floating in space. There is a softness, a seduction, a level of awe to this work that can melt even a cynical old critic like myself.

Detail of installation, Pixelwald Motherboard <Pixelforest Mutterplatte> (2016) at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist. Photo: ArtsHub.

Likewise, kicking your shoes off and laying back to experience 4th Floor to Mildness repositions the viewer, both physically and metaphorically. For many it offers a turning point in how video artworks can be experienced. While it embraces the sensual and sublime, there is something dirty or unsettling also in this work. And laying back in your meditative state, Rist lulls you into contemplation of bigger thoughts on the muddy territory of nature and humanity’s impact. 

Rist explains: ‘The work itself describes the fantasy of being an organic plant and simulates our dissolution into water, mud, slime, molecules and atoms.’ Viewers look up at two lily pad-shaped forms that perforate the ceiling, revealing through them nature’s wonder – it’s like you are witness to an epiphany.

Exhibition installation view, 4th Floor to Mildness at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist. Photo: ArtsHub.

That is all wow and whacko, but those same gongs are not reserved for all works in the exhibition. For this writer, the field of scrims that act as screens for projected images in Administrating Eternity (2011) felt on the thin side. It didn’t have that retinal punch we have come to expect of Rist’s work; the intensity of colour or mass.

We have been schooled in our experience of her work by the success of her room-size projections. That success has created a pretty high bar for comparison. However, Rist explains that the net-like veil of the screen is vital in that it allows the projections to permeate and bleed onto the other scrims and images, diffusing memory and association.

Nice idea, but does it work effectively where it is hung – a thoroughfare between spaces and other works – or would it have been intensified by setting this quieter work in its own space?

Exhibition installation view, Administrating Eternity (2011) at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist. Photo: ArtsHub.

In the same critical vein, the installation Sleeping Pollen (2014) is seemingly caught between spaces. Seven mirrored spheres levitate in the gallery, capturing the reflection of projections of plants and botanical studies. Just as Administrating Eternity felt too light, Sleeping Pollen felt too dark, and barely caused a pause as punters pushed on to the next thing.

By this point of the exhibition the viewer has been eased into a sense of journey – we have been moved through a series of rooms building anticipation. In some ways it works counter to Rist’s intention to slow the viewer down. In the past we have experienced Rist’s work as a more static engagement – pull up a cushion, sit back and be immersed with visual overload.

Perhaps the flaw is not the presentation or the work, but just that Rist’s work reads better as stand-alone signature moments, rather than en masse.

Either side of Sleeping Pollen is a maze of heavy curtains with the welcoming neons, Trust me and Help me. It is a little like plunging down Alice’s rabbit hole. The anticipation is palpable entering these galleries, and the sound dampening quality of those thick heavy curtains adds to the drama.

To the left is the massive installation comprising Your Room Opposite the Opera 1994-2017. Here, 14 individual works are projected onto walls, floors, furniture and even onto a bottle of gin. The shift in scale is dramatic and yet this collection of works is designed to set the viewer at ease, domestic and everyday in its reference and setting.

Through the curtains to the right is the aforementioned 4th Floor to Mildness.

Detail of installation, Your Room Opposite the Opera 1994-2017 at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist. Photo: ArtsHub.

A review of this survey would not be complete without a mention of what is perhaps Rist’s most loved, most famous work, Ever is Over All (1997) – awarded the Premio 2000 for outstanding achievement at the Venice Biennale, where it premiered.

Rist’s two-channel video pairs images of red flowers in bloom, on the right, with a women in a blue dress gleefully walking down a street smashing the windows of cars on her way. This video is pure joy, and her anarchistic destruction is saluted by a policewoman walking in her wake, adding to the message, 'embrace life not the rules'. 

Detail of video installation, Ever is Over All (1997) at MCA, Sydney; courtesy the artist. Photo: ArtsHub.

The video work sits at the entrance to the exhibition. I suppose it heralds the fact that Sip my ocean is an experience, urging visitors to let yourself go and get into it.

My guess is the exhibition will receive rave reviews. For a start, Rist chose to preview the exhibition to kids before opening to swanky set of VIPs, patrons and media. And viewing the show just days after opening, three of the large installations were, dare I say, 'cluttered' with kids.

Down one end of Your Room Opposite the Opera was a group of mothers with half a dozen parked prams; at the other end of the room a group school boys were draped over beds, couches and crowded around installations. Then in 4th Floor to Mildness nearly all the beds were occupied with another school group. And in Das Zimmer (The Room), school kids again were seated three abreast on Rist’s oversized red couches with others clustered around, engrossed in flicking between Rist’s early videos from the 1980s that celebrate hysteria and pleasure. 

There are no didactics, wall texts or labels across Sip my Ocean. This isn’t an exhibition about ascribing meaning or rational explanations, rather it is all about the experience. And, in that, it has a gift of normalising the art experience – even if these installations are anything but “normal” in their sophistication.

It kind of makes sense then that a bastardised version of Chris Isaak’s 'Wicked Game' plays across the first half of this exhibition, almost like an anthem to anarchy.

What a wicked game you played to make me feel this way
What a wicked thing to do to let me dream of you

Over them a woman’s voice screams Isaak’s line, 'No, I don’t want to fall in love', her intensity implying the opposite. Scream, be curious, think differently, and fall in love with Pipilotti Rist is the message, because life is too short to do otherwise.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
1 November 2017 – 18 February 2018
This exhibition is presented as part of the Sydney International Art Series, and is exclusive to Sydney.

Pipilotti Rist: Sip My Ocean is a ticketed exhibition.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

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.