In the closing days of Pour Your Body Out (7354 Meters), Pipilotti Rist’s ravishing wrap-around video atrium installation at MoMA, the place has been packed. Mothers have been making playdates in the atrium, letting kids run around while they gather on the large round couch. Visitors bring computers and work here, or listen to iPods, or chat or doze or read.
Last Monday I got an intriguing mass email from the artist Cheryl Donegan and the poet Kim Rosenfield, announcing an unsponsored impromptu event called "MoMA Yoga," led by Alexandra Auder. (Auder, a yogi, is the daughter of Andy Warhol’s superstar Viva and underground-video phenom Michel Auder.) I couldn’t resist. On Friday night, I arrived to find the darkened atrium teeming with hundreds of people; Rist’s wonderful droning, chanting soundtrack filled the air with drowsy delirium, and her images of gigantic naked floating bodies, lush undergrowth, and water filled the walls. A few minutes before the appointed starting time, a dozen or so people, almost all women, shed their coats to reveal work-out clothes. At 7:00 pm, the tall, fit, and charismatic Auder, outfitted in a gold-lamé leotard and striped leggings, announced that she was leading a free yoga class. She chanted three long loud oms and began.
The place went silent. Before I knew it, two Uruguayan girls sitting next to me leaped up and joined in, as did three Japanese women behind me. Soon a group of around 25 was following Auder from downward dog to little cobra to pigeon pose. Then Auder called for people to lie on their backs and try not to move a muscle. It became hard to tell the yoga class from the rest of the gallerygoers (except for the kid who was watching a music video on his iPhone). It took audience participation to a new level: doing nothing, absolutely together. At exactly 7:30, Auder thanked the participants, and that was that. By then the room seemed to have mellowed out in ways I’d never seen before.
I asked Donegan why she staged the event. She said it came from "feeling dissatisfied with the level of audience interaction with both the Rist installation and ‘theanyspacewhatever’ show at the Guggenheim." She noted that both installations "combined video and carpets and pillows but seemed to ask nothing more of people than to recline and watch. It seemed way too passive." Good point. Just then a guard came over, and I asked him if he had been inclined to stop the performance. He said "No," adding that he thought it had been a rehearsal for an organized event taking place on Sunday. "Actually," he said, "the only reason I moved closer was because I thought she [Auder] was naked and I wanted to get a better look."
After the yoga group dispersed, I kept watching Rist’s artwork, stunned at what she had had been able to do to this institution. I wished that her piece could be left here permanently. It would change life in this museum for the better. But all things must pass. Just before 8:00 pm, we heard an announcement that it would soon shut down for the night. At eight on the dot, the sounds and images disappeared, and the atrium went back to being an enormous blank white cube. The viewers let out a moan I’ve never heard in a modern-art museum before. I realized it also sounded like om. It was beautiful.
Always in search of a perfect moment, I returned to MoMA a half hour before closing time on Monday, February 2, 2009, the last day the Rist was up. I wanted to be there the last time the museum went blank. The atrium was emptier than I’d seen it in weeks. Maybe it was because it was a Monday; maybe it was it was the very end of the day. But the Rist was still working its sensuous magic. I saw a lesbian couple making out inside the donut-shaped couch; outside it a young woman sat in a young man’s lap, kissing him on the mouth. At 5:25 an announcement came over the loudspeakers that the piece was going to be turned off in five minutes. Just then I spied Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of the Rist installation. He was ferrying a museum honcho from Europe. The crowd began leaving. Soon there were only five or ten of us. I met assistants of Rist who came out from the control room, a young woman artist named Serra Sabuncuoglu who watched mesmerized, a fellow art critic stared at the huge images, and a few others I didn’t know. On a whim I asked if I could turn off the Rist for the last time. To my surprise the tech guy said, "Sure." He led me to a little closet around the corner from the atrium. Inside there was a small laptop computer on a shelf (I had expected a giant bank of colorful screens). He positioned the pointer on the proper place and said, "Go ahead." I listened to the droning sounds coming from around the corner one more time, pictured the luscious flowers, yummy fruit being squished and chewed, the water, waves, and sky, closed my eyes and clicked. Everything went silent. I walked around the corner and the Rist was gone. It was like leaving Eden.
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org