Pipilotti Rist, installation view of “Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish,” 2023. Photo: The Storyhive, © Pipilotti Rist

Pipilotti Rist


Museum of Fine Arts

It’s easy to understand the popular appeal of Pipilotti Rist’s “Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish” (on view through September 4, 2023). Large, enveloping, and luminous, the exhibition is certainly Instagram-worthy, nicely situated within the current taste for immersive art experiences (usually, but not always featuring Van Gogh). But Rist’s multi-sensory experimentation with art and technology far predates Instagram and all those pop-up experiences. The two installations featured here fill the MFAH’s spacious Cullinan Hall with a multimedia display combining light, video, sculpture, and sound to create a kaleidoscopic environment, making the point that there is still a place in contemporary art for beauty, wonder, and joy.

Rist has been making digital work since the 1980s. She started with one-channel videos using a Super 8 camera, but her work increasingly became immersive, no doubt drawing on her experience as a stage designer for the band Les Reines Prochaines (for which she also played bass and flute). Representing Switzerland at the 2005 Venice Biennale, her Homo Sapiens Sapiens screened on the immense ceiling of the Baroque-era Church of San Stae, like a ceiling fresco come to life. Unlike much video art, which (for me, anyway) remains prohibitively esoteric, Rist’s work keeps accruing mainstream accessibility; in 2016, Beyoncé famously channeled the whimsical, eight-minute Ever is Over All (1997) in her music video Hold Up. 

Rist’s work inverts digital space, transforming it from two dimensions contained on a screen into ambitiously large-scale, three-dimensional environments. At the MFAH, Worry Will Vanish, a dual-channel, movie-screen-sized video projection, fills two walls of the gallery. Rich in vibrant, full-intensity color, it serves as a visual meditation on nature, the human body, and the inextricable relationship between the two. Close-up views of dewy grass, foliage, and rippling water are complemented by shots that evoke the membranous internal structures of the human body. (In some of her other works, she makes use of small cameras to capture internal images of the body.) It might sound a bit squeamish, but it’s tastefully done so that every frame offers a beautiful and mesmerizing image. Still frames of some of these video passages might at first be mistaken for Hubble images of distant nebulae, as if the journey into the body becomes a journey into the cosmos. A soundscape created in collaboration with Anders Guggisberg accompanies the video.

But the real visual dazzle (and the part of the show that people seem most drawn to) comes with Pixel Forest—3,000 LED lights encased in resin and suspended from the ceiling on threads of electrical wire. The assembly creates a vibrant, luminous, and ever-shifting field of color (ranging from bright pinks to shades of blue and lavender) that visitors are free to navigate (smartphones invariably in hand). Rist describes the installation as a “digital image that has exploded in space.” On close inspection, the resin orbs resemble the weird, destructive hail that occasionally pelts this area of Texas before a tornado, though there’s nothing malicious or destructive about them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—Rist’s invitation to get lost in this digital forest is entirely welcoming.

Both Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish seek to be experienced rather than understood; there’s no intrusive didactic text in the space instructing us what to think. Instead, visitors are meant to wander and linger, and they actually do; bean bag chairs and stools offer a chance to lie down for a while and take everything in (something Rist has also done in other installations). 

Rist’s work certainly fudges the boundaries between mainstream and fine art, but it never comes across as cheap or gimmicky. These two works, with their infectious sense of wonder, remind us that perhaps it’s a bit silly to assume that museum-worthy contemporary art must be sufficiently difficult or elusive. Experiential and sensorial, Rist’s installations connect on an almost instinctual level, inviting a depth of engagement that endures much longer than the 20 seconds spent by the average museum-goer in front of an artwork.