I’m pretty sure Pipilotti Rist would never wear Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit, but after seeing Rist’s new film “Pepperminta” I think it would fit.
Rist is a Swiss artist who has become prominent by merging the eagerly non-sensical with an avid embrace of all things colorful. “Pepperminta,” which Rist wrote and directed, is an 80-minute romp through Technicolor wishes and kaleidoscopic dreams. Despite its occasional and blissful incoherence, it’s the most substantial work Rist has made in years. (Compared to the recent feature-length films by other art stars — think the rambling mythology of Matthew Barney — “Pepperminta” is downright rational.) “Pepperminta” is being shown 10 times this month at the Hirshhorn. Its presentation there was organized by curator Kelly Gordon. [Showtimes are here. Image: A publicity still of actress Ewelina Guzik as the title character.]
The film’s plot is minimal: Pepperminta, a lucky-go-happy girl with a wardrobe fresh out of a Tide commercial, loves color. Once upon a time, Pepperminta’s grandmother told her to embrace being different, so she does. Grandma continues to counsel Pepperminta thus throughout the film by way of an over-sized psychedelic compact that houses a small garden and an eye. In other films this might be odd, but in a Rist of course a dead matriarch is channeled through an eyeball in a makeup kit. Duly encouraged, Pepperminta becomes an evangelist for color.
Pepperminta soon acquires three disciples and the foursome engages in a range of colorful antics that attract the attention of a police force attired in muted blues. For a reason that never becomes clear, the fuzz wants to eradicate Pepperminta’s pro-color advocacy. I don’t remember the ending, which is OK because I don’t think it mattered a whole lot. I think pretty colors were involved.
Think of “Pepperminta” as Pipilotti Rist’s mid-career artist’s statement, a film that summarizes her core artistic principles. “Pepperminta” celebrates the spirit of dippiness by imbuing befuddlingly buoyant characters with the belief that color can have social agency. Both the vibe and the energy level of “Pepperminta” will be familiar to viewers who are familiar with Rist’s film installations; some of the “Pepperminta” soundtrack even sounds like the seductive, trance-inducing tune in Rist’s 1997 masterpiece, Ever Is Over All. (The “Pepperminta” soundtrack is available as a CD, complete with 64-page book on the film.)
But for all Rist’s colorful silliness, there’s a serious trans-generational art-historical dialogue going on here. “Pepperminta” is Rist’s reckoning with — and repudiation of — hyper-serious, conceptualist grand-standing German artist Joseph Beuys. Because it’s difficult for an artist to reject a forefather without engaging him, Rist, 48, also reveals just how inescapable Beuys is for central European artists of her generation.
Rist’s rejection of Beuys starts in the film’s opening scene, an inhale-the-European-spring burst of big red flowers, waxy tulip petals and bare feet in warm mud all accompanied by a bouncy soundtrack that compels a viewer to bob her head. Beuys appealed to the brain. Rist opens her movie with its best scene, an appeal to the senses of sight, touch, and smell. About halfway through “Pepperminta” I found myself surprised that the movie wasn’t produced in Smell-O-Vision.
Beuys’ practice was motivated by a fantastical, even utopian belief in the power of his creativity, by a worldview that art could inspire and create societal change. “Everyone is an artist,” Beuys said. In “Pepperminta,” Rist pokes fun at Beuys’ maxim by assigning the title character three apostles, each of which is more un-artistlike than the last: The first, Werwen, is a pudgy, allergy-fearing shut-in dominated by his mother. Next comes beautiful gender-bending Edna, a farmer or agricultural worker of some sort, and finally Pepperminta picks up Leopoldine, an is-it-tea-time-yet grandmother.
You can’t have disciples without having a Christ-like protagonist, and Pepperminta is certainly that. Consider her a reference to the messianic element to Beuys work — only Beuys was a self-important professor with a grand title of “professor of monumental sculpture” and Rist’s alter-ego messiah is a polyester-wearing drifter. There are more Biblical references throughout the film, all filtered through Rist’s tweaking sensibility. For example, while Jesus floated across the Sea of Galilee to attract followers, Pepperminta floats across a beautifully bright field of pink, yellow and red tulips to attract Edna, who quickly leaves her farming behind to become a colorer of men (and women). Pepperminta baptismally submerges her new followers in a bathtub as part of a process that signifies their conversion to color. The bathtub scenes also feature Pepperminta’s apostles swimming through a womb-like fluid, a suggestion that the followers are being cleansed of their previous colorlessness and have been born-again.
Beuys was more theorist or performer than maker of impressive objects, but his tradmark artwork is the gray Felt Suit (1970, in many collections but the image above is from the National Galleries of Scotland). Pipolotti Rist has no use for gray. Her film effectively starts with the revelation of Pepperminta’s vivid coat, a fuschia-and-gold-braid number that hovers between a drum major’s get-up and something that I once saw on “Captain Kangaroo.” In case that isn’t a clear enough rejection of grey felt, Pepperminta outfits her apostles in souped-up turquoise and chartreuse, respectively. (Perhaps because gussying up a grandmother in a bright bodysuit would be just too much of too much, Pepperminta confines herself to giving that character a bright pink hat.)
The Beuys references keep on coming: Just as Beuys made a self-centered, trickster-like journey through the Cold War West, Pepperminta leads her troupe on a self-centered, trickster-like journey through an un-named European city, overturning stuffy, colorless aristocracy wherever they find it. While Beuys’ work encourages artist-driven revolutions, his practice is absolutist in its insistence on the authority of The Artist. Rist’s “Pepperminta” is essentially a running joke about the folly of artist-driven revolutions. It repeatedly mocks the seriousness or legitimacy of any kind of authority. In several of Rist’s works — including “Pepperminta” and Ever is Over All — authority figures such as police officers are impotent, foils for creative-types or are easily defeated by the forces of libertarian color-espousers. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s how “Pepperminta” ended.)
But while Rist engages Beuys throughout, it would be a mistake to interpret her work — and “Pepperminta” in particular — as responding only to him. Beuys was hardly the only post-war European artist to adopt the beiges and grays of after-the-war Europe as his own. For many Fluxus, Arte Povera and Spacialist artists, color was not fundamental. (Even the other ur-artist of post-war Central Europe, Gerhard Richter, took a a few decades to become interested in color. Anselm Kiefer still hasn’t.) The work of Rist — and colleagues such as Katharina Grosse and Saskia Olde-Wolbers — is a response to that anti-chromatism. Let color back in!, they say. Put the fun back in art, too! Pepperminta simply had to have red hair and freckles.
Related: The trailer and YouTubed videos from the film are here.
Also related: I saw “Pepperminta” at the film’s Hirshhorn premiere last Thursday night. The turnout was bizarrely light: There were about a dozen people in a Hirshhorn auditorium that seats 270. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: The Hirshhorn has done almost no audience engagement or development for its ongoing series of “Pepperminta” screenings. (The museum did not post a press release about them and it takes multiple clicks through the museum’s website to learn that the film is playing.) Here on MAN, I’ve complained that the Hirshhorn leadership is so focused on its architectural follies that it has all but ignored core functions such as audience and community engagement (as well as art itself). Seeing such a small audience at a significant screening, I felt still more disappointment at the direction the Hirshhorn’s leadership has chosen.