Hayward Gallery

A miniature bedroom inside a packing crate; a disembodied eye within a conch shell; a huge super-saturated landscape where warthogs snaffle apples and earthworms decorate naked bodies. This is the unsettling and kaleidoscopic world of Pipilotti Rist, currently showing at the Hayward Gallery. Eyeball Massage draws together videos, sculptures and installations in a survey of her complex practice. The exhibition looks to dissolve expectations, in terms of the experience of viewing moving image work and gallery behaviour, and to blur boundaries not only between works and between viewers, but also between the viewer and the artist herself. Rist does this through the content of the work, through her manipulation of the gallery space and through her methods of display which include the use of tiny hidden video screens, gigantic all-enveloping installations, and unlikely projection surfaces including domestic objects and our own bodies.

The initial works encountered are the most light-hearted and playful in the exhibition. Outside the gallery, Hiplights or Enlightened Hips, 2011, rows of underpants strung up like bunting, and Nothing, 1999, a machine producing smoke-filled bubbles, evoke a sense of childlike excitement. However, the mood becomes more complex as it moves indoors, particularly in the second much darker space. Several pieces have sinister overtones, such as The Little Circle, 1993, or explicit imagery, such as Gina’s Mobile, 2007 and despite the fragmented symbolism, each work contains enough logic to be mildly troubling and completely engaging. Her very personal works frequently exhibit visual and conceptual contradictions, such as violence and bliss, ugliness and beauty, creating a clear critical tension.

Much of Eyeball Massage is shown over three large rooms, the second being partially divided into more intimate spaces through the use of translucent plastic or fabric screens. These devices allow melodic sounds and images to bleed and wash over other works. This facilitates the consideration of the exhibition as potentially one large multi-dimensional video installation. However, I’m Not the Girl who Misses Much, 1986, is displayed inside a huge spike which penetrates the space. Viewers are required to put their heads through one of the holes on the underside of the structure to view the video with their head in dark isolation. Accordingly, Rist’s deliberate and varied manipulation of the space not only determines how we physically navigate the exhibition, but also conceptually mimics the experience of being a visitor, as we remain individual bodies within a larger group of viewers.

Rist choreographs the exhibition space so that we walk around, or through video works, we stretch up or crouch down to get a better view. The artist’s use of cushions and carpets in her large sensual and immersive installations invite us to relax and to spend time in a space, so that we respond to the work with our bodies as well as our eyes and minds. Eyeball Massage additionally locates some of Rist’s video works in unexpected spaces, both public and private, using them as surprising interventions into the gallery shop and café, and a ladies’ toilet cubicle.

The exhibition is disorientating. It has a shifting, melting quality, whilst at the same time heightening our experiences and bringing the details of the artist’s rich practice into sharp focus. This is not only a result of the imagery within these ‘audiovisual poems,’ but also through deliberate shifts in scale and perspective. These occur between works, for instance the miniature floor-based Selfless in the Bath of Lava, 1994, compared to the total environment of Administering Eternity, 2011, and within works. For example, Lobe of the Lung, 2009 combines a worms’ eye view of the soil surface, with a more voyeuristic full-body projection of a woman swimming naked in the ocean. In this, the artist’s three-screen mirrored projection surrounds us, but others such as Lap Lamp, 2006, are projected bodily on to us. These clever psychological constructs underpin the structure of Eyeball Massage, as the viewer becomes an active participant in the exhibition and a part of the work itself, rather than simply looking at it.

The final work within the main space is Mutaflor, 1996, projected on the floor in such a way that you have to walk over it to exit the gallery. In this work, the viewer looks down into the mouth of the artist, and is swallowed up, only to be excreted and returned to the real world. Eyeballs (and brains) thoroughly massaged, you couldn’t ask for a more concise or startling end to the exhibition.