On ViewNew Museum
Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces
June 26 – September 15, 2019
While it isn’t fully accurate to refer to Mika Rottenberg as a cult figure, the technical demands of installing even one of her works are such that almost no one had ever, until now, experienced more than a single complete work in one setting, often with years between encounters. A product of the 1990s upheaval that transformed video art into video installation, Rottenberg’s videos are the focal point of an intricately linked material universe in which architectural elements and room transformations function as added liminal spaces by which one arrives at the screen. Somewhat perversely, because her installations appear so infrequently and are best enjoyed in an intimate setting, they have tended to attract a crush of highly motivated viewers whenever they are shown. Discrete sculptural elements, often kinetic in nature, also play a near-totemic role in Rottenberg’s iconography, and at the New Museum these ‘object-performances’ appear just as one exits the elevator—absurdist harbingers of a painstaking illogic about to unfold.
The exhibition, titled EasyPieces, centers on three separate video installations, the best-known being NoNoseKnows (2015), which was first seen in the Venice Biennale that year, and much discussed at the time. The protagonist of its 22-minute narrative is an extremely tall blond woman (fetish performer Bunny Glamazon), whose job in an anonymous office suite is to sniff cheap floral bouquets until she sneezes repeatedly, at which plates of noodles magically appear on her overcrowded desk. Her dingy work station is mysteriously connected to a parallel scene of cultured pearl workers half a world away, one of whom has the task of turning the crank to activate the fan that blows pollen into Bunny’s face. The repetitive, de-humanizing actions carried out by the performers clearly belong to a world of hyper-alienated global labor, in which kitschy versions of beauty and glamour drive multi-billion dollar industries, degrading both human nature and nature itself in the process.
While it’s obvious that Rottenberg has serious concerns about global capitalism and labor, she’s also artistically driven in her videos to create a veritable playground of the imagination, where hidden passages connecting remote locations stand in both as metaphors for a globalized economy and as tropes for extreme forms of social dysfunction, while all the accompanying textures and sounds seem indistinguishable from our own surroundings. An actual tunnel built in the gallery leads to her 2017 masterpiece, Cosmic Generator, shown previously at Skulptur Projekte Münster. In its nearly 27 minutes of surrealist free association, the improbable density of Chinese restaurants located in the Mexican border town of Mexicali is the inspiration for a kind of metaphorical tunnel leading to a wholesale lighting market in Yiwu, China. Skeptical passersby on Mexicali streets barely feign interest in the wares of a woman selling an unidentified, unappetizing substance from her pushcart, while at a nearby restaurant, miniature humans who have physically dragged themselves through a different tunnel—or is it the same one?—reappear inside covered dishes, wiggling uncomfortably as they await the fate of all lunch specials. Meanwhile, back in Yiwu, female attendants at the various product booths check their phones, send texts, make calculations, and take occasional naps, while remaining outwardly oblivious to the visual cacophony of blinking, glowing, twinkling lights and plastic knickknacks that appear to spatially overwhelm them. At regular intervals in an unknown third location, a worker intently focuses on her task of using a hammer to shatter colored light bulbs into glass shards.
Rottenberg’s use of iconography and narrative that underscore the intimate nearness of the world, while also highlighting surprising gaps in human contact, reflect her commitment to developing absurdist connections between unlikely pairings. In her newest work Spaghetti Blockchain (2019), created for this exhibition, links are less evident between manufacturing and consumerism, and are more obvious between stages of experimentation and performance. Like the other two videos, Spaghetti Blockchain has a female protagonist: a Tuvan throat singer from Siberia, dressed colorfully in native garb, whose sole function is to produce the deep growling vocalizations that characterize throat singing. Elsewhere in the video, a rotating platform doubling as work station and occasional roulette wheel employs a number of faceless workers, whose tasks include burning marshmallows attached to dried spaghetti structures, spraying a balding man’s head, frying miscellaneous substances, and slicing juicily into what looks like a colored loaf of gelatinous dessert. Somewhat incongruously, long stretches of the video are devoted to scanning banks of computers, mountainous landscapes and traditional Siberian dwellings—a device that imbues the piece with an overtly touristic vibe that seems out of keeping with the quasi-anonymous locations features in Rottenberg’s earlier works. As viewers, we are also asked to ponder the Tuvan singer’s existence as independent from whatever narrative line feeds the rest of the action, which has the unintentional effect of breaking the continuity that distinguishes her other works.
The entrance to the installation for Spaghetti Blockchain guides viewers past one of Rottenberg’s most intriguing installations: a series of rooms visible through tall horizontal apertures, each with a ceiling fan circulating air in a visually distinct space, without any of the fans’ effects felt from outside. This symbolic display of energy displaced without any tangible benefit links Ceiling Fan Installation to the series of object tableaux that first greeted us upon entering the exhibition. In effect, the ideal way to meaningfully interpret all these objects isn’t before we enter the video screening areas, but as we exit them, when some of them seem familiar. Suddenly all the marshaling of electricity, heat, gravity and energy seems to be for naught, in much the same way that the concerted efforts by various protagonists in Rottenberg’s videos to perform their duties with dignity and dedication can only be interpreted by us, their witnesses, as proof of the dehumanization of human labor on a global scale.