Fundamentally Swiss

    Biological videos and displays of old pants? Waldemar Januszczak on how Swissness oozes from Pipilotti Rist

    Pipilotti Rist, who shows you her anus at the Hayward, and her breasts, and some biological close-ups I hesitate to identify, is from Switzerland. Which is simultaneously surprising and predictable. The surprise stems, of course, from Switzerland’s national reputation as somewhere clean, well ordered and rational. This is not, you would have thought, a nation of anus-flashers. But wait. A society is one thing, its artists are another. Switzerland may indeed be super-efficient in the running of its social mechanisms, but when it comes to producing creatives, the national track record is outrageous.

    Not many notable artists have emerged from the cantons, but the ones who have — Fuseli, Böcklin, Giacometti, Klee — constitute an irrational crop. I will go to my grave unable to understand what Giacometti was after when he began making people wafer-thin. As for Fuseli, the man painted monsters sitting on women’s chests. This is not sensible art.

    In that respect, Rist is a predictable addition to the Swiss list. Her pulsing, bulging, dripping, squishy video art is set entirely in the dark, and the syrupy, dreamy effects she favours seem to ooze in through your pores, rather than the usual art channels. It’s all very biological and mucousy and slo-mo. Imagine being a foetus floating in amniotic fluid while your dad, Brian Eno, practises new-age music on the outside. Yet you hardly need a degree in psychology to work out the correlation between these seemingly opposed Swiss positions. Well ordered and repressive societies produce irrational, internalised art for the same reason big thumbs pressed on tubes of Colgate force out blobs of toothpaste.

    The first thing you see here is a multicoloured chandelier made of old pants. Male. Female. Small. Large. The artist collected them from her friends. More pants hang outside, on a long electronic washing line of illuminated Y-fronts, as if all the down-and-outs on the South Bank had decided to wash their undies on the same day. In an explanatory text, Rist describes her pants as “the temples of our abdomen” and goes on to propose: “This part of the body is very sacred, the site of our entrance into the world, the centre of sexual pleasure and the location of the exits of the body’s garbage.” Thus, a video that begins with a close-up of the artist’s mouth emerges a moment later as a close-up of the artist’s anus.

    Most of what Rist makes art about — the human body; the juices it produces; its holes and their functions — is messy feminine subject matter that dates back to her overly tidy Swiss childhood. Indeed, the entire exhibition feels as if it has pushed the rewind button on adulthood. Up in the ladies’ loo, to which I was allowed one-off access as a privileged critic, there is another video projected onto the floor of a cubicle, which you can only see if you are sitting down. A helicopter flies above a Swiss suburb and spots a little girl playing in a garden below. The helicopter swoops lower. The little girl, you now see, is actually a middle-aged woman, pretending.

    Rist was born in 1962, and this is both a retrospective and an installation. Work from all phases of her career has been distributed about the Hayward in a seemingly seamless and unchronological fashion. So, where most video shows lock up their produce in self-contained cells, this arrangement has replaced solid walls with floaty hangings. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. The result is a display whose impact is often wishy-washy. The best pieces are those that achieve the clearest separation. A large wooden crate turns out to contain a dollhouse-scaled bedroom into which a giant moon has crashed, tugging the entire night sky with it. A bedroom is being reminded of its place in the cosmos.

    Deeper into the show, a tiny hole in the carpet turns out to contain a miniature female, shouting and gesticulating at you angrily through the opening. It’s a clever bit of video presentation that cuts through the surrounding acreage of gallery waffle. Rist, you feel, needs structures to rail against. She should stick to interventions and avoid retrospectives.

    Tate Britain has assembled what we might call a half-retrospective devoted to the irritating Barry Flanagan. He was irritating because he could be so good one moment, so bad the next. The Tate survey looks back at his early work, from the 1960s to the 1980s, before he began specialising in the prancing hares that became such an ubiquitous and annoying piazza presence in the 1990s.

    Although they appeared to spring out of nowhere, the dancing hares were actually typical of Flanagan. He was one of those professionally insouciant British artists who like to appear as if they don’t give a damn. Some of the drawings on show here are an insult to draughts­man­ship, so little effort has gone into producing them.

    The trouble with employing raw wit as an art-making strategy is that you end up with nothing if the wit doesn’t work. Many of the sculptures from Flanagan’s middle period are tragically short of impact. A pile of sticks arranged in a messy tepee. Crude jute hangings draped tediously from the wall. Flanagan, who was from Wales, was aware of these dangers, and his career also featured several unconvincing lurches into deeper Celtic subject matter. Tantric Goddess is a ludicrous female nude with her bits painted bright red in a transparent attempt to steal some of the primitive power from a sheela na gig. Other sculptures of the period refer to Celtic crosses, ancient runes, portentous menhirs.

    Yet this same effortful searcher after depth found it easily in his earliest work. The first couple of rooms are superb. The 1960s pieces made of roughly sewn jute, stuffed with sand, have a glorious wobbly tension to them. Flan­agan’s appetite for unglamorous materials — thick ship’s roping, bursting coal bags — gives us sculptures that rub themselves on their elegant Tate surroundings like an unshaven chin on a girl’s face. Then it all gets jokey. And the entire exhibition slumps and diminishes like a sack of sand with a hole in it.