It is difficult for the work of Mika Rottenberg (b.1976) to go unnoticed: hers is a highly idiosyncratic brand of Surrealism, applied to the dreary context of modern manufacture and commercial services. At the heart of her practice is the uncanny sensation that arises from the combination of the unexpected and the habitual or repetitive, such as rabbits being generated by the force of a man’s sneeze. The short video work Sneeze (2012) opens Spaghetti Blockchain, a survey exhibition that brings together fourteen of Rottenberg’s works made over the past ten years. It is inspired by Fred Ott’s Sneeze (also known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze; 1894), which is the oldest copyrighted film in existence. Approximately five seconds in length, it shows Fred Ott – an assistant to Thomas Edison – sneezing just once. In Rottenberg’s iteration a number of men in suits, wearing bright nail polish on their fingernails and toenails, produce an assortment of objects with each sneeze, including rabbits, meat and lightbulbs. Such leitmotivs recur in Rottenberg’s collection of absurdities and are continually revisited in later works.
In the following room, a self-standing tunnel and a series of industrial display grids adorned with inexpensive decorations, such as plastic flowers, an inflatable pineapple, tinsel and toys FIG.1, function as a walkway to Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3) (2017/2018), a film that similarly relies on an overwhelming abundance of superfluous crap. A scene of another tunnel illuminated by colourful bulbs – purportedly connecting the cities of Mexicali in Mexico and Calexico in California – transforms into a shimmering, bubbling soup, the surface of which reflects customers at a Mexican food stand. Layered throughout the twenty-six-minute film are scenes in which light bulbs are smashed with a hammer and besuited men crawl through the tunnel or are being served as a dish in the Chinese restaurants of Mexicali FIG.2. There are also multiple shots of bored female shopkeepers in the ‘Yiwu wholesale market of small commodities’ in China, which is overflowing with all sorts of plastic knick-knacks FIG.3. This contrast between the kitsch paraphernalia and the alienated workforce problematises the belief that humans have control over the things they sell, consume or own. Rottenberg’s surreal bonanza it is not an end in itself: by astutely interlacing a host of disparate elements, she highlights the disparity between the smooth flow of objects in the marketplace and the challenges faced by migrants in our globally interconnected yet boundary-ridden world.
Lips (Study #3) FIG.4 is a looping video installation that can only be viewed by peering through a pair of parted lips that protrude from the gallery wall. Thus, the viewer becomes a voyeur, presented with a psychedelic ideation of a body’s insides: a kaleidoscope of sweaty bottoms, green liquids, frenzied ponytails, tongues and smoke. Similarly, in kinetic sculptures FIG.5, body parts, including elaborately manicured fingers and hair, are combined with organic matter, such as soil and vegetables; gears and cranks are activated by viewers either by turning knobs or pedalling. There is a longstanding parodic tradition regarding machines that ludicrously complicate the task at hand: the ‘contraptions’ of William Heath Robinson come to mind. Although Rottenberg’s examples of bureaucratic satire employ devices that, even at their most convoluted, still appear to have some sort of purpose, these industrious machines in fact produce nothing but a futile mechanical dance.
NoNoseKnows (50 Kilos Variant) FIG.6 depicts the working conditions of the female factory workers of Zhejiang Angeperle in Zhuji City, a company that specialises in freshwater pearl cultivation. Rottenberg’s semi-fictionalised narrative documents the workers’ dynamic with an invented Western supervisor, a blonde woman in a grey suit played by Bunny Glamazon, a six-foot-three wrestler and former adult film performer. Glamazon’s character is a caustic metaphor for the inscrutable nature of the activities of the managerial class: she is constantly occupied with tasks that evoke what the anthropologist David Graeber has termed ‘bullshit jobs’. She sniffs a small flower bouquet, which triggers an allergic reaction and causes her nose to grow to Pinocchio-like lengths. In the meantime, the real-life workers located on the lower floors are routinely infecting oysters with parasites and subsequently sorting through the pearls.
There is a parallel between the process of contaminating the oysters and the manager’s allergic reaction, however, whereas one process yields pearls, the other produces unappealing pasta plates with every sneeze. Rottenberg often combines imagined scenes with real-life production processes: for those unfamiliar with the processes of pearl cultivation, the footage of the women at work in the factory could easily appear to hail from a sci-fi fantasy film. The factory and the managerial ‘offices’ are connected by farcical elements that take the film to an absurdist register. While most of the women are skilfully doing their job, one is shown sleeping with her feet in a bucket of pearls, which later reappears in the manager’s office, containing – presumably the same – pair of feet, now disembodied and upside down. Another worker is busy rotating the lever of a pulley system, which recalls the sculptures shown in the previous gallery space. As it turns out, this wooden pulley powers a fan located behind the flower stand at the manager’s desk, which causes pollen to circulate and trigger her allergy. In the damp, dimly lit basement of the factory, an older woman is busy using a blade to extract pearls from plump shells. The supply chain becomes a looping circuit, fuelled by dexterous, fast and focused disembodied hands, feet and noses and a body that pumps, digests, expels, sneezes, cries and sweats.
This structural analogy between bodies and machines – which underlines most of Rottenberg’s work and informs her fascination with the production processes that put food in our bellies and pearls on our collarbones – is taken to an extreme in the last video, Spaghetti Blockchain FIG.7. The video juxtaposes the mechanical hum of the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in the world located at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, with the traditional throat singing of a woman from the Tuva region in the southern Siberian steppe FIG.8. Footage of the collider is intended to elicit the sensations of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos: viewers are treated to close-ups of gelatines cylinders FIG.9 being sliced and sweating, followed by the sizzling of a non-descript liquid after contact with a scorching surface, turquoise dough being squished and the noise of colourful plastic balls. The video serves as Rottenberg’s materialist manifesto: everything and everyone is ultimately made of the same matter. Therefore, in her work, there is no hierarchy between groundbreaking technology that can potentially uncover fundamental truths about existence and a potato crop. In Rottenberg’s simulacra, time is a looping tunnel in which the inanimate and the animate are connected in preposterous, pointless journeys, which go both everywhere and nowhere. Moreover, any human efforts to categorise, clean, sort, fix or even understand are likely to lead to chaos rather than order.
Rottenberg’s imaginative and exhilarating visual sensitivity does not employ the typical didactic, activist or documentarist approaches of political art. Rather, by highlighting our humanist hubris, the artist presents a more existential perspective on our place in the world as consumers and workers. Despite painting the ugliness of capitalism, consumerism and alienation, the show does not explicitly appeal for the viewer to take action against plastic pollution in oceans or support factory workers in China or migrants from Mexico. Like the throat singing she documents, Rottengerg’s practice encompasses several distinct notes in a single vocalisation. Her dream machines make explicit the feeble boundaries and tensions between dichotomies: truth and fiction, attractiveness and repulsion, action and resignation, misery and entertainment, intention and senselessness, satisfaction and boredom, wonder and repetition, fury and amusement. They metabolise reality and expel hyperreal farcicalities, tinged both with humour – verging on slapstick – and sadness: like a clown with a runny nose.