“These days, we all hope worry will vanish,” says Gary Tinterow, director of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, referring to Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s dual-installation Pixel Forest (2016) and Worry Will Vanish (2014) on display in Cullinan Hall. Born in 1962, Rist is a rare example of an artist acclaimed equally by general audiences, museum curators and the snobbiest of art critics for her work, which remains as provocative as her early experiments with Super-8 film. With both pieces now a part of the MFAH’s collection, Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish are set to both dazzle and bring a sense of peace to Houstonians throughout the summer.
When visitors enter Cullinan Hall—hidden from public view by a heavy curtain worthy of an Italian opera house—they must find a path through a “forest” consisting of over 3,000 LED lights hung from the ceiling like dangling neurons in a giant brain, each bulb cocooned in its own translucent crystalline sphere. “This is like an explosion of pixels you can move through,” says the exhibit’s fearless curator Alison Greene. “Your first impression walking in will be you’ve gone to the best disco you’ve ever gone to.”
Projected on the south and west walls is Rist’s two-channel video Worry Will Vanish, which seamlessly weaves endoscopic footage of the human body with images of plants, clouds, colorful liquids and, at one point, a naked woman jumping up and down in a primal celebration of joy. More chill-out room than disco, Rist’s labyrinthine maze of glowing bulbs leads to a clearing of pillows spread out across the carpeted floor where visitors can crash and let Worry Will Vanish’s rich, multilayered images wash over them. Meanwhile, digital information from the video is transmitted to lights of Pixel Forest, triggering an unpredictable cycle of alternating colors, like lightning flashes across an alien landscape.
At the press preview for the exhibit, Rist was clearly overjoyed with the results of a three-week intense collaboration with MFAH staff to install both works. Wearing one gold and one pink shoe, and peering through the lenses of her silver-framed glasses, Rist is both a model of superhuman efficiency and anarchic mischievousness. Her moniker, a nickname she was given as a child, refers to the Swedish children’s book character Pippi Longstocking, and, like her pigtailed namesake, Rist engages the world with an open heart, so that those who experience her art can do the same.
The immersive environment of Pixel Forest / Worry Will Vanish is further augmented by a complex, through-composed soundscape of keyboards, guitar, and bird and insect sounds originally composed by Rist’s longtime collaborator, musician and painter Anders Guggisberg. Music has always been a crucial component to Rist’s work. “Pipilotti is a musician,” Greene says. “Her understanding of music and tempo and her freewheeling pop music associations are very carefully thought out.”
“I gave him the dramaturgy,” says Rist about her collaboration with Guggisberg. “We speak more in terms of composition, how many minutes I want (the music) floating, then we go up, then half up, then we go down again. We know each other really well. In a way, Anders becomes me, and I become him.”
Speaking of music, fans of Beyoncé’s 2016 video for “Hold Up” may not be aware of its connection to Rist’s groundbreaking video Ever is Over All (1997), in which a woman in a blue dress and ruby red slippers gleefully smashes out the windows of several parked cars with a long, thin cast-iron flower. (In “Hold Up,” Queen Bey, draped in the yellow colors of a Yoruba goddess, wreaks similar havoc with a baseball bat.) “I remember the profound delight when I first saw Ever is Over All,” says Greene. “That first piece was exciting not just because you see a woman smashing windows, but because it’s a really pretty woman.”
Though her work has moved way beyond the raw, almost punk aesthetic of Ever is Over All, Rist has described color as “dangerous,” and acknowledged its power open a person’s eyes and mind to the world around them. “She’s not interested in fixity of meaning,” cautions Greene when asked about Rist’s complex use of color. “It comes out of her engagement with nature. This is something Swiss and German culture have advocated, that it’s not healthy to raise children indoors.”
It remains to be seen if those who visit Pixel Forest / Worry Will Vanish will find themselves sensitized to the out-of-doors as a result of experiencing such a precisely constructed, wildly imagined indoor environment. But whether it be just a few minutes or several hours, those who take time to experience the wonders of Rist’s exhibit will no doubt feel their worries disappear, and sense of child-like wonder renewed.
Thru Sept 17. Tickets from $13. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300.