• Why Pipilotti Rist should stop making pants and follow her inner Pippi Longstocking
• I once saw some underpants entangled in a tree outside the Hayward gallery, and they were not an art installation. But at the end of 2011 there were hundreds of underpants strung outside it which were an art installation (above), allowing much lowbrow media punning along “art is pants” lines. They were part of the exhibition Eyeball Massage by Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist and folk-punk performer, who was a surprise hit at the 2005 Venice Biennale with an ambitious son et lumière in the canalside church of San Stae, normally more famous for Tiepolo’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. Here footsore art yompers could recline on curvaceous foam platforms and watch the less exalted Homo Sapiens Sapiens (2005), a film starring two naked Eves in the Garden of Eden, projected across the building’s expansive ceiling. Anecdotal evidence suggests it was popular largely because you could get a free lie-down, normally impossible to find in park-starved Venice; given the mix of art overload, physical exhaustion and slight hysteria that characterises Vernissage week, whether the film was worth watching or not was probably irrelevant.
The first Rist show I ever saw, at Fact during the less exotic 2008 Liverpool Biennial, also offered a welcome chance to lie down. I was hugely grateful to the artist, because it was pouring with rain and my feet were killing me, but despite spending much time with her substantial survey I remember nothing of it bar a giant chair and a heap of Scouse hipsters nodding out to the warbliness of the films. It’s a vagueness that speaks more of the work than incipient Alzheimer’s, as I can recall plenty of other art from that trip. I thus assumed that equipping her installations with facilities to lie down and chillax must be the secret of Rist’s success, as her projections’ content – naked women, wet nature, woozy close-ups, strategic grunge, whimsical muzak – struck me as the same filmic wallpaper in varying formats, and meaning-free to the point of inconsequence. So would the Hayward tell a different story, or is Pipilotti Rist really, to quote the philistines, “pants”?
At the Hayward too, there were plenty of opportunities to lie down, but thanks to the hefty entrance fee, its floors weren’t strewn with weary Christmas shoppers. Only a few punters wandered the wanly-lit installations dotted sparsely around the concrete acres, and far from the “thrillingly immersive” experience many reviewers raved about, the ambience was more reminiscent of an unpopular Occupy encampment, or an ill-attended indie rock festival in a 1970s library. The rebellious teenage bedroom feel reminded me that, as a teenager, the artist renamed herself after a figure from childrens’ literature, fearless seafarer Pippi Longstocking (Pipilotti being a diminutive, apparently). Super-strong Pippi was also my favourite childhood heroine, so I wanted to like the show, but it was tough. The films flickering from arrangements of handbags and retro-chic eBay furniture were not greater than the sum of their parts, and the ricketty self-made low-tech machines did not evoke their intended personalities. True to Rist’s adolescent self-reinvention it was all a bit child-like and child-centred, but in the sense of a groovy teaching assistant entertaining toddlers – CBeebies on party drugs – rather than a grown-up intellectual encounter. Fittingly the most engaged participants were a bunch of kids, dutifully tugging some headless-torso-cum-bean-bag things around as if they were in the world’s largest, most depressing, nursery.
When people praise Rist, and quite a lot do, they always refer to Ever Is Over All, a film from 1997 in which she smashes car windows with a flower. This was on display here, and you can see the allure: a pretty young woman skipping past a row of parked cars in slo-mo, swinging a massive, overtly phallic red hot poker flower and occasionally hefting joyful swipes at car windows, which quietly shatter. The female cop trailing her adds a note of tension, till she saunters briskly past with a cheery salute and the film loops again. One reading posits this scenario as an alternative feminist ecoverse, but though it’s fun, it’s not that deep, and it’s certainly not immersive. You can’t help but ponder the mechanics of it – did they just park certain sacrificial cars, was filming permission gained, who cleaned up the glass, how did they get a metal bar in the flower – not to mention snigger at the over-literal symbolism of a stiffened rod, whose flowery bell-end looks like it’s encrusted with tiny breasts. Rist’s background as a musician means the piece also reads as a clever one-trick pop video, by which definition all sorts of things could be presented as art which actually aren’t.
The other standout, the obviously Bruce Nauman-influenced I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, was an even earlier play on the MTV generation: her first-ever video work, made in 1986 when she was still a student. It’s worth watching on YouTube (where the artist makes many of her works available), but the installation here added another level. It was shown inside a large triangular box sticking out from the wall, with holes in the underside through which to stick your head, all low enough to make it – presumably deliberately – fun for kids but uncomfortable for most men. Inside you were confronted by a blurry, black-dressed Pipi, her breasts exposed in the manner of a Minoan priestess, frenziedly gyrating and screeching a line adapted from John Lennon’s Happiness Is a Warm Gun at crazily fast and slow running speeds. This provided the only genuinely immersive sensory experience in the show, as your head felt totally divorced from your body, floating in enforced intimacy with other heads in a strange disembodied plane, getting no input from anything but the film. It was like being trapped in a garret with a voluptuous, capricious madwoman, intended perhaps to evoke claustrophobic childhood dependence on the mother, or conversely a mother stuck at home with a hysterical mini-me – the one truly visceral reference to childlike states that I found.
Perhaps those two works were Pipilotti Rist’s career high points. Elsewhere her themes went under-examined in a jumble of psychedelically-hued, overlapping light projections and unsubtle Freudian found objects, relying for effect on physical rather than conceptual layering, or basic show-and-tell, such as The Innocent Collection (1985-), a banal wall of found white detritus, reminiscent of a first-year graphics project (she did after all study graphic design). Apologists claim she talks about complex subjects like evolution, religion and the law, but there’s a difference between simply presenting things, and making a serious comment on them. Maybe some see a fragile poetry in her work – there’s a fragile poetry in anything, if you contemplate it for long enough – it but to me Rist trades on rave installations for the easily pleased, without any hint of the transformative rigour that characterises truly rewarding art. However, I may be lonely in that view, as she has many fans in the art world. A couple of male art writers whose opinions I rate certainly remain entranced with her, perhaps reading those bloopy, bubbly panoramas of floating body parts and pouting lips (mainly belonging to attractive women, it should be noted) as sexy encounters with a fanciful feminine ego, though to my jaundiced eye they look more like the twee antics of some wacky bird you’d meet at an art therapy group.
To be kind to the Hayward’s greater curatorial vision, the Rist show’s light and playful female mind-spaces contrasted intelligently, though not to her benefit, with the darker male psyche evident in George Condo: Mental States, a survey running concurrently on the floor above. Although a bit paint-by-numbers at times, Condo’s warped de Kooning-paints-the Muppets schtick was chewier viewing, partly due to his work’s obvious influence on queasily kitsch art market stars John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, and partly due to a mordantly humorous salon hang exploring male cliches and classical tropes that demonstrated an unexpectedly rigorous development.
But it’s Rist who got the plum spot downstairs, and while she’s obviously a godsend for curators looking to fill a large space with modish audiovisual work, the promise of her early productions seems to have dissipated. There’s a bit at the end of her disturbing dance in I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much where the blurry thrashing stops, and John Lennon’s original song kicks heart-stoppingly in, punctuated by an image of Rist’s bared teeth. After some non-sequitur scenes of a tree and the artist dressing, the dancing returns in brief echo, before being engulfed by a sudden whining blackness suggesting off-screen catastrophe. That grimace as the poignant “real” music (meaning real life?) plays out is ambiguous: it could be read as a fierce look, but also an accommodating grin. The latter aspect of her muse held sway: instead of pursuing an inner dancing demon she wandered off into the nature-and-nakedness shallows signposted by the non-sequitur scenes, a woozily feelgood landscape despite the recurring elements of blood and minutely-inspected orifices. As in the recent Tate Britain show of Barry Flanagan, which sensibly concentrated on his inspiring Arte Povera riffs and terminated once he found success making appalling hare sculptures, in this show – to work a metaphor – you could map the ghostly traces of a strange artistic path left untrod in favour of an unchallenging, crowd-friendly highway. Personally, I’d have preferred to see more of the adventurous Pippi Longstocking, and a lot less of the pants.
• Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery, London, 18 Oct 2011-8 Jan 2012