On Mika Rottenberg

by Frances Malcolm, August 2011

While the body has maintained a central place in art history’s arsenal of iconography throughout the ages, it has also endured a long legacy of impassioned theorization and irresolvable debate. Feminism, biomedical breakthroughs and the postmodern turn, amongst other socio-cultural developments, have shattered any claims of the body as a neutral, stable entity. For video installation artist Mika Rottenberg, the body can be seen as a contemporary site of capitalist colonization in a neoliberal marketplace, “a land or territory for growing stuff [and] extracting value from nature” (“Mika Rottenberg,” Cool Hunting, March 2008).

For her videos, Rottenberg constructs imaginary factories as a way of framing her interrogation of  how the body, typically female, has become a site from which bio-value is extracted and transformed into marketable commodities. Exploiting documentary film techniques, such as static framing and the use of auditory source cues, Rottenberg explores the labor practices and processes of production that define each of her imagined territories. While the saturated visuals, aural richness and cutaway splicing augment her subject’s inherent political and social gravitas, such seriousness is ultimately mitigated by the videos’ fanciful humor and Dadaesque absurdity. The resulting maelstrom of ethics and aesthetics, production and consumption, mythology and ontology forms a swirling mass with multiple entry and exit points and allows the videos to address heavy-hitting topics without falling trap to hackneyed moralizing. Shunning easy categorical distinctions, Rottenberg employs fragmentation to subvert structuralist binaries and challenge traditional interpretations of the body with regards to sexuality, capitalism and art.

A dizzying sense of dislocation—both spatial and conceptual—is at the heart of these cinematic centrifuges. In Mary’s Cherries (2004), for instance, three female laborers pedal bikes in an unidentified location within a makeshift office-factory; the energy produced powers a light that expedites the preternatural growth of Mary’s lipstick-red fingernails. After achieving sufficient length, Mary drops the clippings through a chute to the level below where another woman pounds them with her fist. The fragments are then delivered to Rose, who massages them into gummy maraschino cherries. The impossible architecture of the discombobulated facility echoes the illogic inherent in turning nails into cherries, an extraordinary feat reinforced by the observation that the nails belong to Mary (a name fittingly evocative of the miracle of transubstantiation). Following this model, Cheese (2008) also builds upon a scaffolding of Escher-worthy incongruity. Feudal agrarian society, itself a precursor to capitalist manufacturing, is promoted in this video as a cult of peasant women reigning over a community of goats, pigs and chickens, all of whom are housed in labyrinthine wooden compound. Scenes of the women putting their Rapunzel-length locks through a series of beautification rituals such as washing, dressing, drying and tying are spliced together with shots of them “pumping” the earth and milking their goats. The end product of these processes—a synergy of feminine fertility and earthly harvest—is a solid block of a cheese.

The Marxian connotations within these works are anything but subtle. The oppression of the workforce through alienating forms of labor is established by the repetitive, assembly-line nature of the nonsensical tasks. This is especially true of Squeeze (2010), which depicts the taxing working conditions of Arizona lettuce pickers and laborers on an Indian rubber plantation.  Foucaultian forms of biopower are also recalled as the body—the most unalienable of entities—is literally harvested in the name of profit. In addition to producing cherries from fingernails and cheese from hair, other videos illustrate the centrality of sweat in the creation of dough (Dough, 2006) and spit in the production of moist tissue wipes (Tropical Breeze, 2004). In Squeeze, the raw material is stereotype: a buxom Caucasian woman exhibiting exaggerated hallmarks of feminine beauty waits patiently within the bowels of a subterranean makeup factory. Inserted within a vice-like contraption, she is squeezed to such a degree that her face releases cartoonish pink crystals, which she brushes off into tins of blush. The absurdity of this and other processes heightens the viewer’s awareness of parallels to her own world, exposing the strange cannibalism that characterizes contemporary consumer society.

By perverting the female body’s reproductive powers, Rottenberg zeroes in on the rampant fetishism extant within contemporary capitalism. Through this process of diagramming the occluded or latent machinations that structure today’s political economy, she also engages institutional critique in a manner reminiscent of Wim Delvoye or Piero Manzoni. Squeeze’s climax, for instance, occurs when the Arizona lettuce and Indian rubber are finally combined with the blush to produce a soggy, fetid cube of compacted refuse. An accompanying photograph shows the offensive platter in the hands of New York dealer Mary Boone, thus signaling its status as art. Through this amusing though unapologetic mockery of art’s apotheosis as the most desirable of commodities, Rottenberg underscores the fantastical creation myths we buy into on a daily basis.