The Museum of Fine Art Houston’s two main Summer exhibitions, the survey show Ron Mueck and Pipilotti Rist’s double installation Pixel Forest and Worry will Vanish are nearly at an end. Rist’s installation must be the most instagrammed work of the Summer. Crowds flock to the museum to lie on soft beanbags for a psychedelic trip through nature and human organs, bathed in intense colours and accompanied by a tantalising sound. But what to write about it? What if an artwork is so beautiful and indulgent that it has no dark side? What if the art does not challenge you to think?
Whilst pondering these questions, let’s start with the artist next door: Ron Mueck. In a series of rooms with dimmed lighting and walls painted light-gray, we encounter various people sparsely placed throughout the space, who seem to be completely immersed in their own world. There is an elderly lady leaning over, seemingly tired of life and alone. A young couple is holding hands absorbed in their own thoughts. A boy crouches in front of the mirror, whilst in the opposite corner, a young adult lift his shirt to reveal a shot-wound carried like a stigma.
Something is off here. Mueck’s sculptures are immaculately made – each hair, dimple and wrinkle visible and real. It almost feels diminutive to call his figures artworks - Mueck’s people seem to have a soul, to breathe and come alive in front of our eyes. But one thing is unusual: their scale. Often smaller than human-size, Mueck’s people show us their vulnerability and evoke a feeling of unease.
I stand still for a long time looking at a middle-aged man sitting in a large wooden boat. His neck bent forward, arms crossed, his flesh starting to sag a little and his hair starting to thin. He looks beaten and sad. The whole setting has something biblical to it, and at the same time something essentially human: existential, intense and real. But for me Mueck’s somber figures never cross the line to plain suffering. They simply remind us that melancholia is part of the human condition, that we all have this feeling inside us, and that sharing it with other human beings makes it bearable. Mueck makes us stand still and admire ourselves, not in the superficial poses of social media posts, but in all our oddity, vulnerability and beauty.
In comparison, Pipilotti Rist’s double installation Pixel Forest and Worry will Vanish – recently acquired by the MFAH – is light, frivolous and undeniably uplifting. You wind your way through a dense ‘forest’ of thousands of LED lights, changing color, flickering and swaying with the visitor’s touch. The lights are loosely suspended from the ceiling on threads of wire, their unwieldiness a refreshing contrast with the smoothness and straight lines that usually accompany light-based artworks. This forest seems alive.
Behind the forest await two huge screens; plush carpets and bean bags draw you in and invite you to give yourself over to the trip. Accompanied by sounds of nature and soothing electronic music (Rist collaborated with artist and musician Anders Guggisberg), we zoom in and out of lush landscapes fresh from rain, glide over human hands to suddenly land inside someone’s throat. Worry Will Vanish is an apt title for this combination of intense sensory stimulation and a feeling of surrender – a surrender of thoughts, of the rational mind. Rist tells us that she “always wanted to do rooms where people are the centre, where they feel comfortable and have time to imagine, daydream.”
Looking at the people spread out in the room, it becomes clear that they are looking AT something rather than participating IN something – they are completely passive. Thus Rist’s installation bears the risk of becoming a pure spectacle - the token of a capitalist society in which we consume images as passive spectators, technology is used in an uncritical way and the artwork takes complete presence over us and our bodies. Although technically complex and engaging all our senses, these artworks are falling short of accomplishing the tension that great art creates.
As Bertold Brecht reminds us on the MFAH’s shop window, “Art is not a mirror held up by reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. Good art should make us think, and see the world in a new light. Giving ourselves over to Rist's artwork in such a complete way, we eradicate our critical minds. Maybe the MFAH’s viewing instructions are the clearest indication that Rist’s installation is lacking in something. “Little ones are welcome to explore! Just please do not leave children in the exhibition unaccompanied”. Art that carries the danger of becoming a babysitter is the perfect way to spend a lazy Summer day, but if you want to be touched in a deeper and more meaningful way, I recommend you stick to Ron Mueck.
Ron Mueck, MFAH, until 13 August 02017
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish, MFAH until 17 September 2017