One of our greatest fears is being forgotten. It’s a fear that perhaps even supersedes our fear of dying. Pipilotti Rist’s films, on view in a new show at the New Museum entitled “Pixel Forest”, highlight this strange fascination we have with recording ourselves as a way of keeping records of our existence, rather than relying on people’s memories. Video art speaks to this fear of being forgotten, but portraiture is not limited to film as a medium; written autobiography serves as a form of self-portrait, much like a photograph or painting. All of these mediums will be explored in relation to the search for self preservation and the subsequent constructed identities that emerge from this quest, as shown through Rist’s work, Filippo Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.
The exhibition begins before entering. Facing out of the New Museum is a screen that plays a looped video of Rist pressing her face against the glass, staring out at any passersby on the Bowery. Open My Glade (Flatten) shows Rist sliding up and down, contorting her skin as it turns white and orange and green with pressure, all the while staring out with almost comically large, enormous eyes. The exhibition is filled with video installations by Rist; some are similar to this, featuring Rist herself in both humorous and provocative poses; others, a mix of found footage and other characters.
The inherently narcissistic nature of filming oneself makes video art feel like a declaration from the artist that “I am here, and I exist,” like in the aforementioned Open My Glade. Inside the exhibition, walking down the stairs between gallery floors, there is an iPhone on the landing, seemingly lost; drawing closer, the viewer sees it is in fact another installation in the collection. In this work, Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath Of Lava), a nude Rist jumps up and down towards the viewer, yelling “Help me! Someone!” in multiple languages while surrounded by crackling virtual flames. While amusing, it is a literal cry for attention, emitted through a cellphone.
Ironically, the exhibition’s setup almost encourages viewers to add to the show by photographing themselves alongside the works. Pixelwals (Pixel Forest), a room filled with dripping crystalline lights that constantly shift colors became the ultimate Kodak moment — or perhaps more appropriately, the highlight Instagram moment — of the show, with viewers intent on capturing themselves among the lights. It’s reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama’s incredibly popular Mirrored Infinity Room at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, where people wait hours for a mere 45 seconds to stand in the room, each spending their dedicated 45 seconds photographing themselves in the mirrors, documenting the experience, rather than absorbing the transcendent quality of being in such a space. It begs the question: are we now seeing art exclusively for bragging rights? Or are we just trying to put a part of ourselves into this art, constructing an identity as the sort of person who inhabits these places or enjoys these things? Or perhaps we are all trying to extend our mortality, inserting ourselves into this narrative of prolonged existence through photographs and videos.
When confronted with video art, I often think about technological progressions like those predicted by Marinetti when he declared in The Futurist Manifesto that “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when all we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”
Time and Space died yesterday — and since that writing, which rested on the dawn of the radio, we have invented new forms of communication which have broken every boundary feasible to man. We can telephone friends halfway across the world; we can watch videos of people who are dead; we can listen to their voices on recorded messages. Have we not broken the boundaries of both time and space? This need we feel to constantly capture, obsessively record every moment is in defiance of our own mortality, a way of guaranteeing our immortality. Marinetti’s focus in his Manifesto begins with the image of a racecar, hailing it as the pinnacle of beauty, and again he relates the idea of speed with this declaration (that it is “eternal” and “omnipresent”); recording, however, whether through film or photography, creates an inverse effect, in which a singular moment is captured and time stands still.
This concept of capturing moments and expanding them along an infinite plane is explored in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, in which the winged red monster Geryon, plucked out of antiquity, begins writing an autobiography at the age of five, overcome with a desire to make sure his story is told. “If the world ends now no one will see my autobiography,” he laments as a teenager. As he grows older he experiments with photography as a form of documentation separate from writing; “I am disappearing, he thought/but the photographs were worth it.” So long as he can capture his existence, it doesn’t matter if he dies.
But die he does not. It is through his art that Geryon survives, overcoming his destiny as told through the myths. By rewriting the tale of what was once a passing character in an ancient story, Carson herself resurrects Geryon, injecting him with life each time his tale is read. He is well aware of his foretold destiny, first writing it in his preliminary autobiography; “Herakles came one/day killed Geryon got the cattle,” to which his exasperated teacher asks Geryon’s mother, “Where does he get his ideas?”. Thus, his obsession with being read, and documenting his life, is to save himself from absolute extinction, which was how he existed until Carson revivified him.
Eventually, before he takes flight at the book’s end, he grabs a recorder: “Want to give you/something to remember me by,/whispers Geryon closing the door… This is for Ancash, he calls to the earth diminishing below. This is a memory of our/beauty.” Memories are fallible; a photograph is absolute. As Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, and as its nature is ephemeral and fleeting, we can capture our beauty through photographs. As Geryon suggests earlier by claiming his life doesn’t matter so long as the photograph is taken, identity has been reduced to image, or beauty.
This title of this chapter in which Geryon takes flight, “Photographs: #1748” is a reference to the Emily Dickinson poem first quoted early in the novel, “The reticent volcano keeps” (alternatively titled “Poem 1748”) which asks, “Can human nature not survive/Without a listener?” before closing with the lines: “The only secret people keep/Is Immortality.” Without a reader, Geryon does not exist; but each time this book is read, he lives again. Geryon has thus unlocked the secret to immortality: write it down, take a photograph, and each time it’s seen, you live again.
Video art is the newest incarnation of record keeping, and Rist explores the medium as not a way of pure self preservation, but as an introduction for others to the ways in which they too can self-document and record. Perhaps, then, she intended to create an Instagrammable show. In “Body Electric: An Interview with Pipilotti Rist”, she explains, “When people watch [my films] they often say they can completely identify with it. Maybe it’s the quality of the image: it’s something that people think they could do themselves.” And indeed they do; a quick search on Instagram shows that literally thousands of visitors to the museum did in fact film or photographed themselves in front of her work. Because of this approachability offered in her art, by capturing her, they are capturing themselves, merging the two identities into a new one. Instagram (and by extension, social media) has allowed people to curate their lives and subsequently their identities into the person they’d perhaps rather be.
While Rist herself exists outside of her films, the viewer can only see her identity through the works they’re presented with. There begins to be no separation of Rist as an individual and Rist as the character in the film; unless a viewer searches out interviews, or tries to meet her, Rist’s entire identity is wrapped up in short looped videos. In a hundred years, if someone watched these films not knowing any backstory or information about the artist, she might as well be alive for them. There may be clues; the quality of the video may date itself, but otherwise, she is alive, squishing her face against the glass.