This interview was originally published in IDEAT CHINA X MVRDV, a Special Issue of the magazine from March 2022 which was guest edited by MVRDV.
In this unique conversation, Winy Maas talks to Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist, whom he greatly admires, and with whom MVRDV collaborated on the world's first publicly accessible art warehouse, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Depot's unique reflective façade and bowl-shaped design make the building invisible during the day, creating flowing stories on the architecture with dynamic urban sceneries of people and nature. At night, Pipilotti Rist uses light projections to turn the building into a fairy tale wonderland – the lights and shadows “atomise” the building and its surroundings, creating a bright, hypnotic, pulsating layer overlaid upon the solid building, in which people can “float” and sense the evolution of the space. In an hour-long conversation between Winy Maas and Pipilotti Rist, Maas draws on MVRDV's past practice, and together he and Rist extend their thoughts on public architecture, art installations, and technology.
Winy: I think the Depot is a good starting point for this conversation. It is nice to talk about how we collaborated, what artistic issues we faced. Since everything for the depot is a unique design, we had to invent and experiment a lot. We have known each other for a long time, through galleries and museums. Because of the artwork, I remember this video of smashing windows. I also visited your “Let Your Hair Down” installation in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. It was inspiring and interesting, colourful, almost like a fairytale. In the video, the smashing flower was also a kind of a fairytale but with some drama, I loved it.
Pipilotti: I have known your work since the Expo 2000 pavilion you made for the world expo in Hannover. The stacked building, the layers. From that day on, I remembered the name of your company, MVRDV. [It was] quite a progressive building for that time. You addressed so many topics: sustainability, civilisation, nature, and where they overlap.
Winy: This is where we are similar, this playfulness of human beings and the love for nature. I have a feeling the colourful light installation you designed for the Depot is about that. In this case, the installation is more than about flowers and beautiful colours. I see landscapes, barcode landscapes. Am I correct in saying that for this installation you explored different kinds of landscapes?
Pipilotti: Landscape is not a good word for this installation, because I try to avoid the horizon. The camera work goes downwards and upwards; I can’t use images that have a clear bottom, or an end, because you never know from which angle people will walk into the light installation. It has to be multi-directional.
Winy: When you talk about avoiding the horizon, this gives me a feeling of infinity. In the Depot I designed the building in such a manner that images on the floor are mirrored above. For me they blend into one landscape without a horizon. How does this work for you? Are you happy with the three-dimensional landscape that appears?
Pipilotti: I consider the work more like a butterfly. Our projection is limited to a certain area, it’s like one wing, and the building makes the other wing. You can also compare it to opening a book. Now it has this book-like quality, or the butterfly quality, but you are right, there is the line in between. You could also treat that line where it mirrors as the horizon.
Winy: It is, in a way, a game. It’s changeable or composable. That is also the plan, right, for the years to come?
Pipilotti: Yes! It can be challenging doing this kind of public work. When people visit a museum they take their time, they are prepared. Whereas if you present something in the public realm, you present it to people who are not prepared or asking for it. So, your work cannot be obnoxious, it should be more a service to the public. Your buildings have a playfulness but in the end, you hand it over to the users and they do the rest, they fill it up. You do not have to change the façade because the landscape, the city and the sky are changing permanently. I have to add the same quality to my work.
Winy: It is an evolution. Technically the first step is a sequence composed out of a group of images, which you composed yourself. After this the machine, this computer or program, changes it from the one to the other. The next step could be that the mix, or the movement, will be arranged directly. You can’t choreograph that, you can do that with certain algorithms, so over time you will get a different intensity in the sequence and in the overlap of the images that you have there. That is what I call step two in the evolution. Step three would be that it becomes interactive, that’s one step further. So that somehow it reacts to the visitors, or trees, birds, or even the sky.
Pipilotti: Indeed, it has different stages. I feel like I didn’t even complete the first step. I haven’t experienced many interactive works where I felt taken seriously as the viewer, as a participant. Often, I find it more important what the other is proposing to me, and if it’s interactive maybe it’s just a little choice they give me. I prefer the interactive as the caressing of the skin, so that people see each other differently. So that when they watch each other, they see the colour of their faces or bodies, or see how they start to jump around or dance. That is what I’m offering. Maybe that would be a step where I have to find out how long the things can stay and when they have to change, because moving images have a shorter survival period than still images. It’s still something you can ignore, but it’s something that forces you to pay attention and has a certain time limit. We also have to have contact with people who use it, who come there, and also they change. Maybe this year the 16-year-olds hang out there often, next year it will be the new 16-year-olds.
Winy: I am now working on a project in Russia, a monument from the fifties, a beautiful building with a theater that is floating above [editor’s note: this conversation was conducted prior to MVRDV’s statement on February 2nd, 2022]. So we designed a plaza that continues underneath, because there are new cinemas below, with a glass floor, and I didn’t yet think about what to do with that. Maybe I can ask for your intervention, since there will be a 20-metre-high space below.
Pipilotti: I will be glad to advise you! When I think again about the depot installation, it is like the artworks inside moved outside. In a way is it like the colour is concentrated and it flew out, so that outside it becomes more or less the ghost of the art inside. If you switch off the lights, the ghost is gone! For me this is a very important subject, as you said, fluidity – it has a calming, flowing quality. We need more “troost”, consolation, a Dutch word I learned when working in the Netherlands. My installation definitely doesn’t have the ambition to become the centre of attention, it should greet people instead. It is part of the visitor experience of the depot. It starts at sunset and the colours get more intense as it gets darker. It turns the colours on slowly. You don’t want to “hit” people with them. That is something for inside a museum, if you want to really force people to take a stance, to react. Outside a work should not push the visitors away. When I see how children react, they just start to run around. It has to do with energy, very literally.
Winy: I like how you say that it’s a service, and at the same time the installation breathes the ghost of the art inside. The work is not literally a ghost, or literally a piece of a Mondrian or the Tower of Babel. This way it is also less boring. It is more suggestive than biographical.
Pipilotti: My work certainly is not about anecdotes or stories.
Winy: If I had gotten the assignment, I would have made a kind of library of the art inside that we show on the outside – since I am an architect, I work with stories. But I also see the virtue of what you say, that it’s not like the Mondrian floating by but the colors and extraction that counts. That also carries a bigger implication for the depot, which changes over time, and the artwork and value of art that is changing over time. That makes it more open. Now that we have talked about the depot extensively, I think it is advisable to zoom out and talk about inspiration and about your plans for the future.
Pipilotti: I have many different interests. One thing at this moment that is very practical, I am researching all the different light qualities, and also the history of artificial light and how we use light. We could do with less light. So much of the light we experience is artificial. I see a big problem when looking at artificial light and daylight, screen lights and room lights. Car lights and streetlights are also getting brighter. That is one of my research projects. I am asking myself what I can contribute. It’s kind of also lighting design, that deals with the same problem, but I want to approach it a bit more philosophically. Also the whole question of the temperature of light, the difference between warm and cool light and how our brain always adjusts the white balance. That’s a huge thing we are capable of, the permanent white-balancing we do, and I feel we are not being taken seriously by the light sources given to us.
Winy: I find this to be a strong observation, because indeed there is a tendency in the public realm to make, say, an “ecological and safe” light, which leads to a kind of daylight effect. Sharp white lamps, turned up very bright to make a maximum effect, which makes our environment very even. The changes in all the tunnels in Switzerland, for example, but also the highway lamps in Belgium or the Netherlands. These lights are a completely new type of white; the orange is gone. There is no time for any other kind of light anymore, and that is a bit strange. As an architect, I don’t have an answer to that because I’m restricted by rules around sustainability, safety, and budget.
Pipilotti: We could talk for a long time about lights, I also don’t like the floodlights that are put up at the depot site, for example. Things can change. In general, I would like people to have less respect for machines, and not take them for granted. We need more young people that also go into programming and not only use these great tools but also develop them.
Winy: I think that is a beautiful quote to end our conversation with! As an architect, you can perhaps set an agenda a bit more than as an artist. But there are boundaries. I find your comparison to the machine and how it overtakes us telling. We grow over time, adapt over time, in this case through the machines. I think in architecture this is also happening right now, we adapt over time to more ecological buildings. That self-fulfilling is what I now call “tick the boxes” architecture, you make architecture and it ticks all the boxes of the demands and then you are “good”. That’s a very uncritical component.