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Swiss Miss

The CAMH showcases the lush video works of Pipilotti Rist

"Wishing for Synchronicity: Works by Pipilotti Rist" is one of the best installations in recent memory. The survey of the Swiss video artist's work, organized by curator Paola Morsiani, has wonderfully transformed the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The CAMH's main gallery is filled with projections of Rist's lushly colored, joyously dreamlike video works.

The standard method of screening large video works is to build a lightproof box in the gallery to act as a screening room, but Rist's design for the space has one work flowing into the other, through spaces both open and enclosed. The entire floor is darkened; the videos themselves provide the only illumination.

This dynamic installation -- a survey of Rist's works -- is possible because of the nature of the artist's work. Rist continually adapts and reconfigures past works for each new venue. For her, a survey of past works is not a rigid re-presentation of her art but a reimagining of it.

The mirrored footage of Sip My Ocean rolls into itself to hypnotic video.
New York
The mirrored footage of Sip My Ocean rolls into itself to hypnotic video.

At the main gallery's entrance, the ceiling has been dropped almost claustrophobically low, creating a feeling of intimacy and skewing the viewer's sense of scale. In a short, low hallway, a series of headphones hang over cushioned tree stumps. On the opposite wall, a monitor set into the Sheetrock screens a series of Rist's single-channel videos. ("Single-channel" is video-art jargon for works that play on a monitor.) The standout is I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much(1987), an early work in which Rist sings her own, alternately sped-up and slowed-down lyrics adapted from the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun."

The image is blurry as Rist, clad in a black dress with her bosom exposed, dances frenetically. The audio gets faster and faster until it sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks -- then it becomes glacially show. Twenty years later, it looks like an edgy music video starring a teenager on crack dancing in her bedroom to her favorite song. It was made, according to Rist, before she had ever seen a music video, a plausible statement considering MTV debuted in Europe in 1987.

Rist took her first name from the children's book character Pippi Longstocking, and there is something playful and exuberant even in her jerky doll-like dancing. A relentlessly positive thread runs through her work even when things get graphic. Maybe it comes from her being Swiss and growing up in a country where it seems like boredom is the worst thing that can happen. Rist's 1992 video, When My Mother's Brother Was Born It Smelled Like Wild Pear Blossoms in Front of the Brown-burnt Sill, inserts footage of a birth -- including an episiotomy and the subsequent stitching of said episiotomy -- against a tranquil mountainscape. The audio she chooses -- of herself cheerfully la la la-ing, with guitar accompaniment -- is a big factor in setting the tone.

Shown in a room in the main gallery, the artist's 1997 video installation Ever Is All Over consists of two wall-size projections that overlap in the middle. The videos are slowed down to an elegantly meandering pace. The right side shows a field of tall red flowers gently waving in the breeze. On the left a lovely, smiling young woman strolls down the street seemingly wielding one of the long-stalked flowers in a full-skirted blue dress. Rist has a thing for iconically female 1950s silhouette dresses; they appear repeatedly in her videos.

As the woman strides down the city sidewalk, she swings the flower against the windows of parked cars, gleefully smashing them. (The flower is actually made from steel.) It's a transgressive act, but in Rist's video, it just feels like good fun. A cop in red lipstick walks past the happy vandal and gives her a grinning salute. In works like this, Rist manifests a joyous, humorous brand of feminism.

Rist envisioned the CAMH installation of her works like a village with streets, houses and plazas. Walking into the main gallery, there's a sort of avenue that runs down the center. An open plaza to the right is filled with a massive tree branch hung with bits of detritus, lots of clear plastic lids and containers, a paper doily and a torn undershirt. The objects look like stuff that collects in trees after a big flood. Footage of the ocean is projected on the wall behind the branch as its dangling objects create sparkling, elegant shadows in the video. The video becomes an almost sculptural element and, as hokey as it sounds, the environment it creates is magical.

In a carpeted space next door, the 1996 video Sip My Ocean plays. Here, Rist has taken a video and projected its mirror image right next to it, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. The camera moves through the ocean's sandy sunlit floor, filled with unexpected objects like a cheese grater and a pitcher, as well as swimming bodies, including a woman clad in a vintage checked bikini. The mirrored footage rolls into itself to hypnotic audio. It's Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" as sung by Rist herself. Her voice is artificially high, and the intonation of the words is a little awkward, sung by someone who is not a native English speaker. In the background you can hear her scream the words, "I don't want to fall in love," like she is struggling against the lulling effects of the video. (WARNING: Rist's voice is the kind of thing that will keep playing in your head long after you leave the gallery.)

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