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LONDON — Stroll into the current solo exhibition on Mika Rottenberg at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), and you enter a universe dominated by the absurd and grotesque. In the Israeli-Argentine artist’s surreal videos and installations, men in suits sneeze up furry rabbits, and women in neon-yellow visors mold their fingernails into maraschino cherries. The works are comic, mesmerizing, and faintly disturbing.
The fairytale-like characters that populate Rottenberg’s world are workers around the globe who perform menial tasks and churn out mass-produced goods — cogs in the machine that powers our globalized capitalist economy. They are invariably sweating, bored, or asleep, staring at the clock or scrolling on their iPhones. This is a world of claustrophobic identikit interiors, kitsch consumer glut, and mind-numbingly tedious labor.
“If art has any power,” Rottenberg said in an interview with The Art Newspaper, “it is in making things visible.” In her works, she makes the “invisible people” of the world — pearl miners, takeaway servers, bingo hall operators — starkly and unapologetically visible. Her cast of (mostly) female characters don big bouffant hair-dos, clip-clop around on teetering heels, and pop out of their quaint diner waitress-style uniforms. They don’t try to conceal their stretch marks, saggy breasts, grey hairs, and specks of dandruff. Like the eclectic goods they spawn, they are banal, kitsch, and larger-than-life.
Central to Rottenberg’s video work is the ambiguous line between agency and exploitation in a capitalist society. The performers, whom she refers to as her “talents,” often have distinctive physiques and unusual skills that they offer online in exchange for money. The video “Mary’s Cherries” was inspired by an unusual news story in which a woman with a rare blood type gave up her job to devote herself fully to extracting and selling her blood. The star of “NoNoseKnows” is Bunny Glamazon, a six-foot-three wrestler, dominatrix, and exotic dancer.
Rottenberg often finds her non-actors online and insists on paying them the same wage that they would typically make for their services. Like in their normal professional lives, under Rottenberg’s camera they enter into a form of self-commodification in which we, as viewers and voyeurs, also become uncomfortably complicit. Body parts, in Rottenberg’s dystopian oeuvre, are as much commercial products as the gold plastic nodding toys in her video “Cosmic Generator.” The exhibition is filled with strangely-placed disembodied limbs. In one room, a finger with a comically long, manicured fingernail emerges from the wall. In another, a vigorously bouncing auburn ponytail.
Though the characters inhabit specific locales — a Chinese restaurant on the Mexico-US border, a wholesale market in Yiwu, China — there is very little sense of place or time. Yet, true to a globalized world, the indeterminate settings are always interconnected. In the video “NoNoseKnows,” a worker in a pearl factory in China pedals a wheel, which powers a fan that blows pollen into the nose of a hayfeverish woman in a cell-like office in some part of America. As her nose extends à la Pinocchio, she sneezes out an assortment of noodle-based TV dinners which, we can assume, may be used to feed the Chinese pearl factory workers. Much like the bicycle pedals (which appear in several of Rottenberg’s works), all of the videos and installations operate on an endless loop: this is shift work with no end-of-shift.
Apart from the recurring motifs — fake nails, bulbous noses, and aggressive (albeit productive) sneezes — there are humorous echoes between the videos and installations. A drip from a rotting ceiling, which periodically rouses a slumberous bingo-player in the video “Bowls Balls Souls Holes,” reappears in two of the exhibition’s installations. In one, an old-fashioned air conditioning unit waters a potted plant beneath it, and in the other, drops of water periodically descend from the ceiling, causing a group of heated frying pans to sizzle. The fact that the Goldsmiths CCA, recently converted from a Victorian bathing-house, still has the occasional leak and industrial smell, means that it is the perfect setting for Rottenberg’s immersive work.
Within her stylised universe, the artist elegantly combines serious social commentary and pure visual enjoyment. “NoNoseKnows” is punctuated by fanciful vignettes in which a bubble filled with smoke floats around a room with walls painted in bright colors. In “Untitled, Ceiling Projection” (a newly-commissioned video piece which hangs from the ceiling in one of the gallery’s stairwells) we see the underside of a glass table on which someone is violently smashing colored light-bulbs with a hammer. It is an orgy of color, a Matisse cut-out that has come to life and broken into dance.
Rottenberg’s subject matter, however, is never far from contemporary reality. On the opening night of the Goldsmiths CCA, a group of the university’s students stood outside the gallery, handing out leaflets, blowing horns and holding a large banner which read: “Who Keeps the Cube White?” The students were protesting the Goldsmith’s use of outsourced cleaning staff and urging the university to bring services in-house as part of a broader campaign called “Justice for Cleaners.”
Rottenberg expressed her “support and solidarity” with the campaigners and her hope that the exhibition could be a chance to stimulate “debate around the connection between art and activism, ethics and esthetics and the hypocrisies and contradictions that are part of our contemporary reality.” A couple of weeks later, the university announced its decision to bring its domestic workers in-house. While this particular dispute may be over, as Rottenberg’s fantastic and phantasmagorical works remind us, the exploitation of workers is not.
Mika Rottenberg is on view at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Arts (St James’s, London SE14 6AD, London) through November 4.