1.16 / Review


By Glen Helfand June 2, 2010

Pipilotti Rist is not one of us. She exists on her own wavelength, in her own kaleidoscopic universe where senses are heightened, colors are brighter, and the musical soundtracks are blissfully catchy pop songs. Luckily, we viewers benefit from her willingness to share her constructed world. Her video installations are incredibly generous projects that deliver all of the above with hallucinatory, body-hugging camerawork. In perhaps her best-known installation, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) (2008), she managed to soften the rigid and corporate-like atrium space of the Museum of Modern Art with immersive color and sound, and a giant round couch that resembled an eyeball from above. Lounging on that furniture, everyone resembled optical floaters buffeted by giant pink tulips and other sensuous images.

I must preface any assessment of Rist’s work with a disclaimer—my experience interviewing the Swiss artist in 2004 left me smitten by the person; she is as wacky, gracious, and smart as her work. I was bewitched with the most non‑art world feeling, that of being blessed with warmth and good vibes. At its best, her work engenders those same effects. But I was both elated and a bit concerned to hear that Rist had made a feature film, given the fine line she sometimes crosses into new-wave kitsch.

Rist’s focus on the sensual extends to epicurean strategies, and she works with a balance of visual effects and editing styles, as well as actual images of food. Her colors are sweet and bright, although often tempered by viscera, as in Stir Heart, Rinse Heart, her 2004 SFMOMA commission, in which the “protein”  was shimmering footage of internal organs suspended in mountain landscapes. Her work is also, admittedly, an acquired taste. Despite the fact that the candy alluded to in the title is a palate cleanser, Pepperminta (2009) could easily be the equivalent of a cinematic stomachache, the aftermath of eating all of one’s Halloween candy in an 80-minute sitting.

Pipilotti Rist. Pepperminta, 2009; film still. Courtesy of the Artist.

Playful exploration of a Rist installation is one thing—you can go in for a nibble—but feature length means signing on for the multi-course feast. I should have known better than to be concerned, though. Rist has worked with her ingredients long enough to have mastered them, and her movie turns out to be a delightfully assured audiovisual treat, a live-action Saturday morning show for adults that’s sexy, silly, and eye tickling all the way. As a single-channel cinema experience, we become immersed in images and the nonsensical linear path by which the artist strings them together. I left the SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater—where the film, lamentably, screened only once—giddily refreshed.

The titular character, whose name not coincidentally also starts with P, is essentially a secular saint or superhero, out to empower confused souls with the use of high-intensity color. After a skirmish with a postman on a bustling Swiss boulevard, Pepperminta initially meets her charge by delivering mail with a personal touch: she has a penchant for licking doorbells. Her shenanigans take place in real-world locations—city streets, lost highways, flower farms—that are tweaked with mutant skies, altered motion, and a gaggle of stop-motion animated strawberries.

According to the film notes, Pepperminta “is an anarchist of the imagination” who “lives in a futuristic rainbow villa and according to her own rules.” Indeed, and she’s out to spread the word. Like an actualized Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, Pepperminta receives guidance from the ghost of her grandma—who speaks to her as a spinning eyeball in a glittering, rhinestone-encrusted music box—to be her own free spirit. On her travels, Pepperminta picks up damaged sidekicks—a chubby, germ-o-phobic mama’s boy, a repressed, gender-fluxed tulip farmer who binds her breasts, a depressed matron—and makes them part of her benevolent band of Merry Pranksters.

Pipilotti Rist. Pepperminta, 2009; film still. Courtesy of the Artist.

The picaresque narrative structure allows Rist to create a string of daft set pieces that are goofy and sometimes poignant. In flashback, a young Pepperminta steals beach towels by rolling herself into them and creating a thick midsection of multi-hued terry cloth, before diving in the pool; the disgruntled bathers make this a traumatic, personality-shaping childhood moment. In another delightful conceit, Pepperminta appropriates a getaway car, but rather than hot-wiring it, flaps the doors like butterfly wings to propel the vehicle. Her assault on an uptight fancy restaurant results in specials tailor-made to free diners’ true appetites, including vibrant blue spaghetti and a roast pig seasoned with LEGO bricks. The film’s single death scene, a mortality-embracing sequence that’s one of many narrative detours, climaxes with an ebullient burst of confetti.

It is interesting to consider Pepperminta as an archive, or perhaps a greatest hits package, of Rist’s visual and thematic concerns (which does raise questions about how well this work will play for the uninitiated). She’s incorporated footage initially shot for Pour Your Body Out. Pepperminta’s pad—art directed as a fanciful otherworldly apartment accessed through a claw-footed bathtub, with whimsical mod furniture and quirky tchotchkes—resembles Rist’s domestic glam video installation, Himalaya’s Sister’s Living Room (2000). There are ample uses of underwater photography—see the Chris Isaak appropriating Sip My Ocean (1996)—lady cops, as seen in Ever is Over All (1997), Rist’s classic flower-power video, and numerous iterations of honoring menstruation, one of the artist’s favorite themes. The film includes scenes of stained panties and Pepperminta performing nude headstands while collecting her blood in a silver chalice that she keeps in a custom mini-fridge. In anyone else’s hands, that image would be an immediate strike, a groan-inducing use of anachronistic feminist tropes, but Rist’s ability to slip it into a satisfying work attests to her ability to construct a convincing invented universe. Pepperminta may not appeal to everyone’s cinematic sweet tooth, but Rist’s quirky audacity, aesthetic self-confidence, and positive vibes communicated warmth of spirit that left me hoping for Pepperminta II.

Pipilotti Rist. Pepperminta, 2009; film trailer. Courtesy of the Artist.

Pepperminta was on view at SFMOMA on May 20, 2010.

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