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Pipilotti Rist’s Revolutionary Gaze

The Swiss feminist video artist’s immersive pop-music aesthetic has always been ahead of its time

When Beyoncé first premiered her film, Lemonade, earlier this year, art-savvy viewers had a déjà-vu moment during her video for “Hold Up.” Dressed in a bright yellow gown, Beyoncé walks down a city street in the video, gleefully smashing car windows with a baseball bat. The music video was reminiscent of Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist’s 1997 piece Ever Is Over All, in which a woman happily smashes car windows in the same way, except wielding a large rod that looks like a flower.

Rist’s work influencing one of the biggest pop music videos of the year, whether intentionally or not, is apt considering how the artist uses music in her own work. At “Pixel Forest,” a career-spanning survey show of Rist’s colorful and arresting video pieces at New York’s New Museum (running through January 15), you can see how she’s continually explored the relationship between music, bodies, and the female gaze since the mid-1980s.

In many of her early single-camera pieces, Rist reinterpreted the aesthetics of pop music on her own terms. In Sip My Ocean, an early video in which Rist sings her version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” over voyeuristic footage of her swimming underwater, Rist interprets the song in a cartoonish, high-pitched voice, ending with her screaming the lyrics “I don’t want to fall in love!” at the top of her lungs. Suddenly, Isaak’s sensual, melodramatic song transforms into a violent message of resistance, a dismantling of expectations of female desire. She does something similar in her video Sexy Sad I, in which she keeps her camera on a nude male body who tries to escape its humiliating gaze as a warped rendition of The Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie” plays in the background.

Elsewhere, Rist enlists other musicians to help build out her psychedelic video installations. At “Pixel Forest,” visitors are invited to lay down on pillows and watch Mercy Garden, with trippy images of Somerset fields, daisies, and dew-covered blades of grass set to folksy banjo music by musician Heinz Rohrer, or Worry Will Vanish Horizon, a highly saturated exploration of the human body and nature soundtracked to longtime collaborator Anders Guggisberg’s glitchy New Age compositions. On the last floor of the exhibition, Rist presents the new work 4th Floor to Mildness, a dark room full of beds on which viewers can lay and stare up at aquatic videos of lily pads and peeks of human body parts on the ceiling. The whole room is soundtracked to the music of Soap&Skin, a project by the Austrian musician Anja Plaschg, whose dark, experimental pop is reminiscent of artists like Björk and Fever Ray.

When Rist first released her iconic 1986 video I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, in which she manically dances and sings a phrase from The Beatles’ track “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” critics interpreted it as a commentary on women in music-video culture, even though Rist denied this. Critics who write about Rist often like to emphasize that she bridges high and low art, and what most of these critics mean by “low” art tends to be pop music. “They don’t blur the distinction between music videos and art videos, they eradicate it, defying the old high-low nonsense,” reads a New York Times review of her video work published in 2000. “Her pop-cultural affinities don’t unite high and low so much as make them seem like interchangeable engines of pleasure,” critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in 2010.

You can’t escape music, pop or otherwise, at “Pixel Forest,” as the sounds of Rist’s work bleed out even into sculptural works that possess none. Nor can you escape the universal sensuality of her work, which rewards viewers with a museum experience that is radically more accessible than the largely silent, white structure of typical galleries. Her fluid, pop-music aesthetic is an affront to the preferred, whisper-filled sound of museum spaces. Important, too, is the emphasis Rist places on building immersive art. From the pillow- and bed-strewn floors of her larger video installations to the small boxes playing videos that museumgoers can stick their heads into, she has always valued incubation, long before museums struggled to keep people in galleries, before you were competing with a smartphone for attention.

“When you go to a museum, you take a certain time; you know you’ll be there one or two hours,” Rist said in a 2004 interview. “I know people have decided to take that time and it’s my responsibility not to waste it. But when you see something by chance, there’s no time ritual, no time frame. For me, entertaining is not so much connected with commercial dictates but with more careful use of time.” How perfect, then, that Rist might influence a small part of Beyoncé’s dedication to time-based music ritual through Lemonade, broadcasted on HBO in full.

To even contemplate the distinction between “video art” and “music videos” within Rist’s career feels silly these days, when Frank Ocean sets up cryptic video live streams for fans to tune in to and Kanye West exhibits a sculpture from his video for “Famous.” The line between the two forms is a distraction from what Rist and so many artists strive to do now: for a brief moment, create and immerse people within a small, musical universe.