Shortly before entering art school, Elizabeth Charlotte Rist took the name Pipilotti, combining her childhood nickname, Lotti, with Pippi Longstocking, the heroine of the Swedish children’s book series. Rist’s identification with the girl-adventurer—a playful yet fiercely independent orphan who possesses magical strength—points to several features of her work: her ready borrowing from popular culture, whimsical exploration of the fantastic, and unconventional approach to female subjectivity.
Since emerging in the mid-1980s, Rist has drawn as much from the language of the mass media as she has from first-generation video artists like Nam June Paik. In particular, the saturated colors, hallucinatory effects, and prominent sound tracks of her works have elicited comparisons to the language of music videos. While exploiting the sensuous qualities of the medium, however, Rist eschews popular conventions of narrative and spectatorship, especially in the way that she presents her female subjects. Sip My Ocean (1996), a video projected as two mirrored reflections on adjoining walls, offers a kaleidoscopic view of an idyllic underwater paradise, with a flowing sequence of dreamlike images, including intermittent close-ups of a bikini-clad woman floating and swimming through the waves along with views of various domestic objects sinking to the seabed. The implicit voyeurism and exaggerated hyperfeminity of such images are complicated by the accompanying sound track, in which the artist’s rendition of Chris Isaac’s melancholy pop song Wicked Game is punctuated by her repeated shrieking of the lyrics “I don’t want to fall in love.” Although she denies having an explicitly feminist agenda, Rist frequently merges eroticism and coquettishness with aggression and hysteria to produce provocative fantasies of female empowerment.
Moving beyond the conventional format of the screen or gallery wall, Rist has often projected her videos in unusual ways, manipulating scale, context, and viewing position to uncanny ends. Atmosphere & Instinct (1998), for instance, comprises a small projection onto the floor, in which a childlike woman, clad in a Raggedy Ann–style dress and wig, is seen from a bird’s-eye view. Moving in and out of sight through the leafy treetops, past suburban homes, swimming pools, and lawn chairs, she looks up and waves her arms with the desire to be seen or perhaps to fly away; the work takes on a melancholic tone when that desire promises to be unfulfilled. On a wholly opposite scale, Himalaya’s Sister’s Living Room (2000) features a variety of moving images within a fully immersive environment. In this work—one of a series of pieces in which Rist has explored the domestic space—the viewer is invited to move through a dimly lit interior cluttered with furniture and objects from different eras, some of which are uncannily animated by videos cast from hidden projectors: on a side table, the artist presses her face against a windowpane; a liquor bottle atop a 1950s-era bar glows with a soccer game. Rist has noted that the “moving picture itself is always a room within another room.” Just as she employs video to explore the interiority of her female characters, here she uses projections to penetrate inanimate objects, uncovering the thoughts and memories embedded within the traditionally feminized, collective space of the household.