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Pipilotti Rist’s pixelated party of color and sound in Hong Kong


Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist is known for her immersive installations, mesmerizing use of colors and idiosyncratic visions of life. At her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, Rist invites us to look at the world — and ourselves — through the wondrous eyes of a child.

Currently taking over several locations at Tai Kwun, “Behind Your Eyelid — Pipilotti Rist” is Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, which opened in August as the latest blockbuster summer show staged at the former Central Police Station compound since the Takashi Murakami solo exhibition in 2019.


“Behind Your Eyelid” features 45 works that span the 60-year old Rist’s three-decade career, comprising her signature immersive video projections, along with large-sale installations, kitschy objects and moving images replete with her idiosyncratic humor, rapturous colors and catchy music. Most of her artworks on view are adapted specifically to the architecture of Tai Kwun, some of them responding to the past of the colonial-era prison compound.


Two new works were commissioned specifically for the Hong Kong showcase. The grounds of the former prison yard come alive in the technicolor projection Water Tiger Colour Balm (2022) during the evening, while Big Skin (2022), a room-sized installation. In the dimly-lit chamber, a dozen semi-translucent, amorphous “skin-like” screens are suspended from the ceiling, while a captivating ensemble of video projections, made up of natural landscapes and animations of the galaxy — dance across their surface.

In The Apartment (2022), which is situated in what was a former women's prison cell in the heritage site, Rist has given the room a complete makeover with floral projections, a dining table and chairs, and a whole host of home-like trinkets, many of which are locally-inspired.  There’s a painting by local artist Ant Ngai Wing-lam, and a video titled Respect Scholarly Rock Hong Kong (2022), which is projected onto a scarlet-colored vitrine that resembles a cabinet of curiosities.


At first glance, Rist's work may seem to be all surface effects, or, for lack of a better, more culturally relevant expression, very “Instagrammable”. The multimedia showcase is made to seduce — a stunning immersive experience that reverberates our senses and toys with our sense of scale. There’s no surprise why the show exploded on social media almost immediately when it opened back in August, with some local Youtubers comparing it to that of a presentation by teamLab, the Tokyo-based art collective known for their digital art experiences that bathe the viewer in colorful sights and sounds.


“Pipilotti is the master of immersiveness,” says Tobias Berger, Head of Arts at Tai Kwun and curator of the show, “She was always interested in pushing everything out of her material — out of the projector, out the TVs."

But Rist’s art goes way beyond their eye-candy appearance. Since the long gone days of analogue media she has sought to create stimulating experiences for the eyes and mind with her art, more specifically with videos, her anchor medium throughout her career. “I like installations that really get you involved, that make you part of them, or that even work like a lullaby,” she says.


Rist once said that the video is merely “a lousy copy of our visual eye system”, but the camera can be used to give perspectives that humans cannot achieve due to the size of our bodies, and that there is little distinction between the human body and nature. “We are organic structures, chaotic. We are not a Porsche. We are really a plant with no roots. A plant that can walk.” The notion lends her moving images and music an organic quality that is rare to come by in the realm of digital art — an all encompassing bodily experience that not even VR headsets and the metaverse can replicate.


The main section of “Behind Your Eyelid” at Tai Kwun is located at JC Contemporary, a three-story contemporary art gallery fashioned out of a former prison building at the heritage site. The show begins on the third floor with Pixel Forest (2016-22), a dark room filled with strings of amorphous LED lights hanging from the ceiling, flickering to the tune where Rist is heard singing “I want to see, how you see….” The 3,000 LED-lit resin forms — which Rist curiously likens to “frozen labias” — are handmade and individually programmed to represent a single pixel in a video. Walking among them makes it feel like you’re diving beneath a screen — the “skin” of a video — swimming within a moving image surrounded by digital pixels. 

Most of the works on view were first created decades ago, when digital imagery and videos were nowhere near as ubiquitous and accessible as they are now. Berger pointed us to the two-channel video, Sip My Ocean (1996). In the exhibition, the video is projected across the corner of a room as mirrored reflections on adjoining walls, filling up two walls in a theatrical sized display. “[This] could never have been shown in the same way 30 years ago, because the projectors were just not that big, maybe three times four meters max, and they were very weak,” he says.


The scale of the projections makes it feel like you’re part of the video installation, which depicts an underwater paradise featuring dreamlike images, and intermittent, extreme close-ups of a woman in a bikini swimming through the waters as various domestic objects sink to the ocean floor. The imagery is interwoven hypnotically with music, which is sung by Rist herself, and covers Chris Isaak’s love ballad Wicked Game (1990), culminating into a hysterical scream of the phrase “I don’t want to fall in love” towards the end, in a seeming declaration of heartbreak for ambivalent relationships, or perhaps, for the polluted state of the ocean she witnesses.

Since almost every work in the show had to be adapted to the site, Rist flew into Hong Kong in January to supervise the installation. Back then, hotel quarantine in Hong Kong was a grueling 21-day affair. “There's nothing you can just put on the wall, and that makes it a very challenging show to install and to do,” explains Berger. “With her work it's so precise. Every work has to be calibrated and be individually tuned towards the environment. The beauty of Pipilotti is that on one side, she's like, we cannot do one straight line, but if we do go for a curved line, it'd have to be curved exactly.”


Despite their jubilant, and oftentimes dream-like quality, Rist’s works never fail to be critical about pertinent issues in reality. Her works often carry strong feminist undertones, highlighting the female experience and perspective in the issues of sexuality and motherhood — with a critical attitude towards the representation of the female body in mass culture and the institutional norms of what it means to be a woman.

Perhaps this constant provocation is why her works manage to stay relevant, even after all these years. One such example would be her iconic video Ever is Over All (1997), projected against a corner wall at the exhibition. In the video, Rist, dressed in a flowing blue dress and ruby slippers, is seen happily trekking down a cobbled European street, like Dorothy Gale on the yellow brick road, carrying what looked like a long-stemmed flower in her hand. Suddenly without warning, she strikes the red and yellow blossom against the side window of a car parked on the sidewalk, which shatters in a loud, satisfying crash. She then continues on her way, and repeats the anarchic act again and again with different cars down the street, smiling ecstatically after each strike.


This act of defiance is a third finger up against the stifling norms of femininity, which still feels extremely current, even almost three decades later. It is also rumored that Rist’s video inspired Beyoncé’s 2016 music video Hold Up, where the pop singer is seen ferociously marching down a sidewalk smashing car windows with a baseball bat. 

It wasn’t just what was in the video that Rist managed to revolutionize, but also how people saw her work. In Digesting Impressions (1993/2022), a woman’s yellow swimsuit is suspended from the ceiling, a spherical TV monitor cradled in the pelvic area to create a swelling feminine form, while the video is barely visible through the layer of fabric, making it necessary for the audience to become “Peeping Toms” and peek through the figure’s crotch in order to see the work.


To be frank, the word 'immersive’ has been heavily overused to drive Instagram-addicted crowds to commercially-driven cultural events these days (I’m looking at you, “En Voyage with Claude Monet”). “Behind Your Eyelid” offers an authentic probe into the video medium’s creative possibilities, inviting onlookers to step through the screen, sit, search and temporarily become part of a cacophony of moving colors and images.




Behind Your Eyelid — Pipilotti Rist
August 3 – November 27, 2022

JC Contemporary and site-wide
Tai Kwun
10 Hollywood Road, Central
Hong Kong