Another old exhibition review of my favourite show last year! I loved this show and I feel like not enough people saw it or are talking about her. Written Nov 18.
A labyrinth of ponytails, hissing pots and breaking glass heralds the arrival of Goldsmiths’ new gallery, the CCA. In this building designed by Assemble, Argentinian artist Mika Rottenberg hit me with an unexpected but satisfying show, combining her film art with installation and sculpture. I was initially struck by certain shallow similarities to Maclean’s work – prosthetic noses that spew live rabbits (yes), bright colours, meticulous mise-en-scene, an arresting soundscape. The visual resemblances are combined with a similar use of narrative quirks, however compared to Maclean’s digital environments, Rottenberg’s realistic settings and hyper-realistic sounds make the surreal elements all the more potent and thought-provoking. The world of her films is our world, albeit shown and constructed so as to present the viewer with a fresh perspective on the state of things.
The thematic strands that run through the show, reveal a considered, if slightly absurd, world view. Behind the somewhat strange fascination with sneezing, nail-tapping and mobility-scootering (motifs that appear across her films), Rottenberg directs our attention to the uncomfortable truths that make globalisation possible. The first work in the show, Mary’s Cherries (2004), subjects its workers (female wrestlers, working together to transform fingernails into Maraschino cherries) to a Rube Goldberg machine of cyclical labour. By containing them in claustrophobic rooms stacked upon each other, she creates a tangible sense of pressure on these women who commodify their bodies. In NoNoseKnows (2015), she focuses on the pearl industry to explore the relationship between consumerism and mass production, which are linked literally by pulley system and a surreal use of space. In Cosmic Generator (2017), she jumps halfway across the world between China and Mexico, exploring lesser seen locations and tying these seemingly disjoint cultures with intestinal tunnels. The atmosphere in both countries is grim and lifeless as the focus shifts along globalised trade routes between workers in overstuffed market halls in China to Chinese-Mexican restaurants on the Californian border, but this association takes on new relevance due to the relationship with the United States. Filmed during Trump’s election, Rottenberg’s use of tunnels and walls (including the Mexican border), product and trade, collapses the gap between disparate cultures and addresses the contradiction of globalisation’s power to unite.
Certain parts of her films have a distinct documentary feel, particularly those emphasising her theme of female labour worldwide. The journalistic approach is disconcerting when intertwined with experimental and surreal elements – it holds the power to ask us to re-evaluate and think differently about such documentary footage that we are often asked to empathise with, but become numb to over time and repeated exposure. The off-kilter nature of Rottenberg’s footage puts distance between viewer and subject without sacrificing its intimacy and honesty. We are drawn in instead by the audio styling, devoid of speech or music, but rich in textural, even sensual sounds. It can be unsettling but succeeds in enhancing the visuals to create a tactile viewing experience.
Rottenberg is hesitant to attach any ideology to her work, but the feminist drive remains. Her actors, who she calls ‘talents’, are almost exclusively women, and often female workers. Tying into her wider fascination with consumerism and production, she highlights this part of global mass-production that isn’t often recognised, in several films. In her words, “If art has any power, it is in making things visible”. By using real workers, she brings to the forefront the manufacturing power these women possess. However, most are presented performing mundane, mind-numbing and surely thankless tasks. Women sort mounds of pearls with dexterity and detachment. Women sit in claustrophobically stacked market stalls, obscured by plastic flowers and garish toys, waiting for customers, dispassion palpable. Though engaging, Rottenberg’s focus on these actions (or lack thereof) can prove taxing on the viewer as these women resign to their cyclical fates. It therefore comes as a surprise when the angry hands that smash up glass throughout Cosmic Generator are revealed as being connected to a woman. The symbolism remains vague, but the affirmation of power serves as reassurance, however brief.
All picture credits to Mika Rottenberg.