It is a rare privilege to be given a personal behind-the-scenes tour of an exhibition being installed, but it’s a downright honour when you chance upon the artist herself, beavering away quietly amidst the artworks.
MCA senior curator Natasha Bullock is taking me through the beautiful exhibition that will become Sip my Ocean, the largest collection of works by pioneering Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist shown in Australia, when the woman herself emerges.
Dressed casually in jeans and trainers, and with a piece of masking tape wrapped incongruously around her waist, Rist becomes as animated and bright as the works themselves as she excitedly points things out.
“About the crate?” she asks Bullock, referring to the delightful miniature doll-house-like world she will create inside a packing crate, part of a Sydney-specific collection encompassing an entire room titled Your Room Opposite the Opera. Bullock considers it a moment before suggesting they position it close to the Cape Cod Chandelier, a Hills Hoist of underpants, babies’ onesies and bras.
“Fantastic!” Rist exclaims, clapping her hands enthusiastically. She moves on to a large, unmade queen-sized bed, giving its covers and pillows an excited pat as she explains everything is washed weekly; children and adults alike are encouraged to climb on and in the bedclothes.
“Look! Hear the sounds?” she asks, stopping suddenly before a series of windows being tinted blue, red and purple along the building’s Opera House-facing facade as part of A la belle étoile (Under The Sky). She moves on to a huge pile of throw cushions, thumping them appreciatively. “For the corner in the big room, so it’s very comfortable,” she explains of Mercy Garden, where viewers are invited to lounge on the ground, gazing up at the lush, verdant images projected on the ceiling.
Pipilotti Rist was born Elisabeth Charlotte Rist in the Swiss Rhine Valley in 1962. When she left home aged 19 she created the name Pipilotti, a combination of the formidable free spirit Pippi Longstocking, a character created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and her own nickname, Lotte. After studying art and design in Vienna and Basel respectively, Rist made an early mark in the mid 1980s with her single-channel video work Japsen, and later Ever Is Over All.
Quickly developing a name for herself as a multimedia artist, she moved into large-scale audio-visual installations that often envelop an entire room; sculpture, film and more recently immersive environments. Rist seeks to acknowledge the beauty of our natural environment using innovative technology to do so, drawing the viewer in close with sensual, quirky and beautiful environments that regularly feature the artist herself.
Bullock began discussing the exhibition with Rist two years ago. She visited her twice in Zurich, where the artist cooked her dinner before they drove to a German barbeque in the Black Mountains to celebrate the 30-year career of the woman who made the casings for Rist’s magical Pixel Forest (2016), 3000 suspended LEDs embodying what the pixels of a TV screen might look like if it exploded. Each light is operated by a separate video signal that reacts to music in a corresponding exhibition space and is therefore continually changing.
“It was fabulous, an honour,” Bullock says of the ensuing process during which she worked closely with Rist organising the 44 works in the exhibition. “Sip my Ocean includes key works from the mid-’80s – single-channels on monitors – to some of the important works in the ’90s, when she broke out of the monitor and onto the walls – Ever Is Over All  and Sip My Ocean  – to some of her recent large-scale immersive environments and sculptural installations,” Bullock says.
The exhibition has been choreographed as a sequence of different viewing experiences, from Administrating Eternity (2011), a maze of fabric veils, images and sound, to 4th Floor to Mildness where viewers lie on the ground and gaze up, as if from a riverbed, at the water lilies and plant life above, to Sip My Ocean, a projection of a man and woman swimming underwater amidst sinking tea cups, a television set and coral while Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game plays.
“There’s something comforting about Pipilotti’s work. It’s about bringing people together. You’re lying there on a bed with strangers, yet you’re having this shared experience, which is ultimately very human. But as much as she focuses on the positive and that sense of the collective, she’s also really interested in the underside, the negative,” Bullock says.
As Rist herself tells Broadsheet: “Even though I have a positive view of humanity, there is room for ambivalence in my work; accepting this should foster a certain mildness towards oneself. This is what I strive for in my work. When viewers experience my works I hope they will stop being quite so hard on themselves.”
Pipilotti Rist Sip my Ocean is on at the MCA from November 1 to February 18, 2018.