The 1990s were a decade of girl power: riot grrl power, Spice Girls power, Buffy the Vampire Slayer power, Sex and the City power, red lipstick and bleached-blonde hair power. Women wielded as a sword what young girls were taught was our most powerful weapon and prized possession – our bodies. Through smears of menstrual blood, undaunted public nudity and romanticizations of mental illness (however misguided), girl power used the body to desacralize its status as a societal treasure. Though some of these aesthetic strategies might seem regressive today, women musicians and artists of the 1990s embodied an irony that defined this era of feminism. Though girl power sublimated gender norms by taking them to extreme, often grotesque levels, it was a revolt that came at a cost: self-destruction and serving the desires of men. From musician Kathleen Hanna to artists Tracey Emin and Pipilotti Rist, women were slut-shamed and labelled narcissistic for bravely navigating this paradox. It’s high time for a reappraisal.
Rist’s exhibition ‘Your Saliva Is my Diving Suit in the Ocean of Pain’ at Kunsthaus Zurich – her first solo show in her city of residence in 15 years – celebrates her contributions to 1980s and ’90s feminist video art, as well as providing an update of her more recent practice. Rist’s impeccable exhibition design features countless projections and video screens, often hidden in commonplace objects, such as purses or lamps. Upon entering the show, viewers make their way through scrims lit with images of sheep, pastoral mountain scenes and geometric vector drawings. Do Not Abandon Me Again (2015) features a view of outer space projected on a nondescript bed. At the centre of the exhibition is Rist’s famous Cape Cod Chandelier (2011), which projects two abstract videos onto worn undergarments collected from the artist’s family and friends. It can be difficult to tell which works here are new: Rist’s idiosyncratic Technicolor sublime envelops and unifies the exhibition, though the artist’s own body gradually disappears from later works. But Rist’s signature, nature-driven, often underwater footage seems to foretell the aesthetic of today’s video artists and social-media makers.
Rist’s earliest and perhaps best-known work, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), is shown in a side room on a monitor, and features glitchy, blurry video of the artist spasmodically dancing bare-breasted to a speeded-up version of a Beatles song. The subsequent Ever Is Over All (1997), shown as a large-scale projection, also foregrounds the artist against a poppy soundtrack, though this time she is fully clothed, smashing car windows with a large, phallic flower as she giddily walks down the street, much to the glee of an onlooking female police officer (and an apparent inspiration for the car-smashing scene in Beyoncé’s recent visual album Lemonade, 2016).
Critics used works like these to brand Rist a narcissistic female vanity artist. That she had the audacity to use pop music in her videos also awarded her the label of naïve outsider, likening her work to populist dross on MTV. But as the generation who grew up with MTV now knows, artists who reached into mainstream media – Rist and Dara Birnbaum among them – were influential for many young video artists.
This retrospective allows us to see how Rist’s early work, combining bucolic Swiss imagery with the female body, speaks to both the ‘natural’ and the ‘feminine’ – two concepts that are still frequently romanticized and misunderstood. Like the pastoral, the female body is an object of idealization so prized that a culture of violence is constructed around it. The female body is not a temple, Rist’s work attests but, rather, a source of an embattled autonomy and self-love. Given that we’ve had decades to process Rist’s contributions and assuage her critics, now seems like the right time to both re-evaluate her oeuvre and further complicate and celebrate the notion of the sublime body.
First published in Issue 180