Is 2,000 Bags Too Many?

The Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has long been fascinated with bags and keeps a vast collection of them in her Zurich studio. Known for her immersive sound and video installations (she’s currently the subject of a show at the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar), Rist believes that the bag was one of the first human tools. With a bag, she says, “you have what you need and are independent — and you’re always ready for a possible escape.” But Rist, 61, also considers a bag to be many things besides: a good friend, a portrait of its owner, a universe unto itself and a vessel — similar to the human body. At its heart, Rist says, her collection is “a phenomenological investigation into how many bags come together when a 60-something-year-old Central European woman doesn’t throw anything away.”

The collection: “All kinds of bags, from [leather] satchels to plastic bags. I’m drawn to anything you put something in and close. For me, they’re all containers, and they’re all stories. I often wonder about the moment at which one of my bags was designed or who the previous owner was.”

Number of pieces in the collection: “Around 2,000, most from thrift stores. Others I got for free, or as gifts. Relatives and friends drop them off at my house because they know I’m the bag lady.”

First purchase: “When I was 10, my family went to Naples and, for the first time, my parents took me to the opera. I got a little handbag made from lacquered woven corn leaves from a street vendor. It was red and had a golden chain, and I wouldn’t let it out of my sight. I don’t remember what the opera was. I was more interested in my bag.”

Latest purchase: “My sister Tamara’s made a lot of my handbags, where I keep my keys and things, and I wear them until they’re in pieces. But last year I cheated on her and bought the most beautiful bag in the world in a [consignment] store in Japan. It’s a leather shoulder bag that’s green, brown and blue.”

One obtained through dubious methods: “Once, as a teenager, I wanted this big, brown leather bag in a department store. I couldn’t afford it, so I stole it.”

Most far-flung: “You know the nets around fruits? I count these as bags, too, and I have a couple of lovely examples, also from Japan.”

Other collections: “I consider myself a collector of collections. [Rist also has collections of toys, cowbells and underwear.] Beginning in first grade, I collected all the broken pencil tips, and I still have them — more than two kilos’ [4.4 pounds’] worth.”

Abandoned collections: “Maybe now that I’ve given [this] interview and really looked at them all, I’ll let [the bags] go. Not all of them, but most of them.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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