A new exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art will plunge audiences into the lush, colourful world of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. Exploring the intersections between the natural world, the human body and technology, Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean will present work from across the pioneering artist’s career, from her single-channel videos of the 1980s to her more recent audio-visual installations and environments.

Sydney audiences last saw Rist’s work at the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, for which her video work Mercy Garden Retour Skin was commissioned, and before that in her exhibition Art/Music: Rock, Pop, Techno at the MCA in 2001.

Pipilotti Rist, Sip My OceanPipilotti Rist, Gnade Donau Gnade (Mercy Danube Mercy), 2014, installation view, Komm Schatz, wir stellen die Medien um & fangen nochmals von vorne an, Kunsthalle Krems, Krems, Austria, 2015, courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist, photograph: Lisa Rastl. 

For MCA Senior Curator Natasha Bullock, who curated this exhibition, the most arresting aspect of Rist’s work is its “joyous use of colour” and “the way that she’s able to incorporate the technology with the body and the universe – you know, the whole world – and make it look lush and playful,” she says. “But also exploring the underbelly, or the flaws as well. It’s never just as euphoric as it might at first appear, there’s always an element of ambiguity or contradiction.”

Rist and Bullock worked closely together to design the exhibition space at the MCA, which takes up the entire third floor, as a complete environment. “She’s interested in breaking down the architecture,” Bullock says. “She started off her career working on monitors – of course that was what the technology enabled – and then the technology changed, and she was able to break out of the monitor and project onto the walls, and now technology again is enabling her to create these complete environments where you can sit and be completely surrounded by panoramic experiences. She has talked about how she wants the viewer to be completely immersed, and she thinks of some of the works as lullabies to create that experience.”

Pipilotti Rist, Sip My OceanPipilotti Rist, Ever Is Over All (still), 1997, single channprojectors, players, sound system, paint, carpet, courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist.

The experience begins with a room dedicated to Rist’s early single-channel video works and her first two breakout dual channel projections: Sip my Ocean from 1996 and Ever is Over All from 1997. Sip my Ocean shows a man and a woman swimming underwater among sinking tea cups, televisions, plants and coral, to a soundtrack of Rist singing Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Ever is Over All features two slow motion projections, one of lush red flowers and the other of a woman gleefully smashing car windows.

These works serve as an introduction. “And then you break out across time and space into different artworks,” Bullock says. “It’s less about chronology and more about the way that works interact with each other to create this fully sensual experience.”

The play of sound across the space is therefore integral to the exhibition. “For Pipilotti music is everything,” Bullock says, explaining that the way image and music intersect are at the heart of many of Rist’s works. “The music is critical to the whole experience of the work,” Bullock says. “She says that ‘people who collect and appreciate music are the pinnacles of humanity for me. Generally I love passionate collectors and agree with Coetzee that we can fill our big holes in our existence with music.’”

“Not only has each of the works been choreographed through the space, but the way the sound works has, of course, been critical to the way that the show has developed,” Bullock explains.

Pipilotti RistPipilotti Rist, Administrating Eternity, 2011, installation view, Komm Schatz, wir stellen die Medien um & fangen nochmals von verne an, Kunsthalle Krems, Krems, Austria, 2011, courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © Pipilotti Rist, photograph: Lisa Rastl.

For instance, the sounds of Ever Over All and Sip My Ocean will work their way through the earlier spaces, the artworks triggering subtle interactions – shivers of colour and light – through the nearby environments.

Moving from the exhibition’s first room, visitors will walk through a “forest of curtains” and projected images in an experience Bullock describes as similar to the way memory functions, with lapses occurring as pieces of fabric come between viewer and image.

“And then you walk over the world, in a way, in Under the Sky, which is projected onto the floor,” she says. “It’s lots of images of a camera going into a person’s mouth or down their back and exploding into atoms, because for Pipilotti we are not separate from the world around us, we are part of nature. She likes to break down those divisions between the inside and the outside of the body.”

Pipilotti RistPipilotti Rist, Sip My Ocean 1996, (still) two-channel video installation with sound, colour: projectors, players, sound system, paint, carpet, sound by Anders Guggisberg and Pipilotti Rist after Wicked Game (1989) by Chris Isaak, courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist.

Sleeping Pollen features “rotating mirror balls of herbs and flora” while 4th Floor to Mildness, created for the New Museum in New York, sees two lily pads projected onto the ceiling, over a selection of beds that viewers can lie on. “The serenity is tangible, but so is time’s passage,” a reviewer for the New York Times wrote of the work last year. “The most memorable image is of light filtering through large, rotting leaves floating near the surface, giving Ms. Rist’s beauty a melancholic undercurrent.”

For Bullock, this underwater experience is a highlight. “Water being a big theme in [Rist’s] work – the Earth is nearly all water, we’re made of water, so just the primal energy of water,” she says. “But also the way that it incorporates beauty and its opposite. The work’s got a lot of dirt in it,” Bullock explains. “Dirt is really picturesque in it, it’s not dirty. So there’s all these lovely magnetic contradictions in the work.”

Pipilotti RistPipilotti Rist, Pixelforest Mutterplatte, 2016, installation view, Pipilotti Rist: Your Saliva is my Diving Suit in the Ocean of Pain, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, 2016, courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine © the artist, photograph: Lena Hubler.

Another vivid immersive space is Pixel Forest, which comprises 3,000 LED lights hanging like strange rocks or crystals from the ceiling. “It mimics an exploding television in space,” says Bullock. “The further you stand back the more you’d be able to see an image in it, but you would never get that possibility because the space isn’t large enough.”

Changing technology across Rist’s career – she was one of the first generation to grow up with a television set in the living room – is something the artist embraces wholeheartedly. “She says, ‘spit on your mobile phone and see what happens,’” Bullock explains. “She doesn’t see it as a negative. Technology is your friend, is the way I’ve heard her talk about it.”

“There’s no cynicism about the way that she uses it, it’s about what its capacity is. She talks about the eyes as blood-driven cameras – she uses the same language to talk about the body as she would to talk about the technology that enables her work. She talks about the sun as the biggest projector of all –  it’s a shared language.”

While the exhibition is not a survey of Rist’s career, it provides a broad-strokes look at a fascinating spectrum of art making. “I think she is a pioneer,” says Bullock. “She has forged forward with a new way of thinking about video, and how to present video, and so she’s really contributed to what we would call the art historical canon in that way.”

“You can see over the years that she doesn’t sit idle, she’s always developing and thinking and exploring,” Bullock says. “I think she’s a naturally incredibly curious human being.”

Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney until February 18.