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At once comforting and disorienting, the Virginia Museum's video exhibit creates a challenging visual spectacle.

Visual Utopia?

The strains of a female vocalist's version of Chris Isaak's hypnotic love ballad "Wicked Game" are the first stimuli that my senses perceive as I enter the gallery. Mesmerized, I follow the siren's song into a large, dark room and am completely absorbed into the environment before me — aqua-blue water, red coral, striped tropical fish, a bikini-clad mermaid, and dreamy, lush colors that fluidly drift by. Am I dreaming? Am I underwater? Am I back in the womb?

Yet there are hints that all is not well in this aquatic paradise. Isaak's lyrics of "strange what desire will make foolish people do" and Rist's almost maniacal screaming rendition of the chorus ("Oh, I don't want to fall in love … with you") seem to question the enchantment of this visual utopia, while simultaneously pulling us deeper inside.

Pipilotti Rist's 1996 video installation "Sip My Ocean," presents a sensual, liquid world that conjures up such ambivalently diverse feelings as the eroticism of male sexual fantasy and the innocence of an infant in utero. The featured work of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "Outer and Inner Space: A Video Exhibition in Three Parts - Part One," Rist's video has the uncanny ability to amorphously comfort the viewer while it clandestinely disorients him.

Rist, a Swiss artist working with video since the early 1990s, seems at first to have a feminist agenda. She is interested in the politics of the female body, male desire, symbols of feminine domesticity, and the role of the media, especially TV and music videos, in negotiating the visual realm of the sexualized female body and the assumed male gaze. And yet, this agenda is not strident — rather, Rist lulls the observer into a boundless, hallucinogenic environment of guiltless pleasure, desire and bewitchment, that only hints of a potential paradise lost.

Shot underwater from a fish's viewpoint, the two-channel video projection, placed on adjacent walls where the corner serves as a pivot to create a mirroring effect, lets us travel through her aquatic world of seaweed, sand, bubbles and waves. Occasionally, an interloper, such as a record or a Barbie camper or a coffee cup, appears before us, but these soon drift to the bottom of the ocean, strangely at home in their new watery tomb.

Hints of the feminine float by: vessels such as a pitcher and a cup (stand-ins for the female body?); a close-up of the pubic triangle with a tiny globe resting upon it (woman as Earth Mother — the source of all life?); the bikini-clad artist (an adult "Little Mermaid" who seduces the landlocked male?); and a floating infant (flashbacks to amniotic fluid and the comfort of the womb?). Interspersed with this imagery are magnified shots of human pores, eyeballs, hair and flesh that mirrored on two screens, morph, split, and then melt into psychedelic abstractions.

The luminous color, large size of the projections and the assiduous rhythm of the music create a total environment that plays with the senses as much as it does the mind. While, at times, the music/imagery combination is reminiscent of a music video (Rist played in a band for years and often explores issues of pop and media culture), the sheer sentient lushness of the installation soon overrides the pop, teeny-bop, commercial aspects of MTV or VH1.

Although the video repeats every eight minutes, Rist has so deftly lulled you into her aquatic paradise, it is soon hard to break free from the seduction. Like an infant leaving the womb to enter the cold world of reality, I don't want to leave this space. It is sensual, relaxing, comforting and hypnotic. "Sip My Ocean" pulls you in and like a subtle yet perilous undertow, is reluctant to let you go.

The first installment of "Outer and Inner Space: A Video Exhibition in Three Parts", "Part One: Pipilotti Rist, 'Sip My Ocean'" continues at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts until March 17. Part Two and Part Three will be presented consecutively from April 6 to Aug. 18.

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