If you want to avoid the tourists, terrorists and Trumpist fervor, my best suggestion is to head over to Mika Rottenberg’s current exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. There’s a bunch of artists on exhibition at the moment, some better known than others, but to my mind, Rottenberg’s installation is the Paris summer pick.
I want to put her work in the same category as that of Ed Atkins, though she’s more expansive and mature in her vision and her work is more sophisticated in its understanding of the medium. Even before I intellectualize it, I have to say, these films are funny, endearing, brilliant and silly. They can be cute and compelling at the same time as they are deeply critical of the status quo. It’s the ability for her films and installations to function on so many different levels, that will ensure they have a lasting impact in a way that Atkins’ images—so far—will not.
|Mika Rottenberg, Sneeze, 2012|
Even before we reach the enormous space given to Rottenberg’s installation in the bowels of the Palais de Tokyo, their rich soundscape fills the air of the entire downstairs. The whistles, groans, boings, jingles and hums merge into an unidentifiable sonic environment that delights and, before discovering the objects they belong to, or that emit them, can irritate. The first piece we see is Sneeze (2012), a short looped single channel video apparently motivated by silent cinema representations of sneezes. This delightful film gives dimension to the senses: the men who sneeze do so with an entire body shudder, and with each sneeze their nose extends, becoming increasingly red and unhealthy. While we expect repulsive things to come out of their noses, the opposite appears: cute furry bunnies, an unused lightbulb, and a perfectly acceptable uncooked chop. It’s the contradiction between expectation and what is shown in her films that makes them so compelling. The men, otherwise dressed in suits, have bare feet with toes painted in bright nail varnish that curl up with each sneeze. Their masculinity is seriously compromised by their sick noses and their painted, but unattractive toes.
|Mika Rottenberg, Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls, 2014|
Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls begins before we see the image as we enter a bingo hall constructed in in the space of the museum. Inside, on the video, various unlikely looking women sit in a bingo hall of sorts, waiting for the magic numbers to appear before them. The most tragic looking of all the women is a large black woman who then, it turns out has special powers. When we realize her telekinetic power influences the number of the balls that come out of the bingo machine, pathos turns to wonder.
There are many recurring motifs in Rottenberg’s body of work such as water, usually leaking, bodily fluids, circles, the bodies that oscillate between clothes hanger and a commodity. In Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls a man’s face is slowly covered in coloured pegs, to match the coloured blotches on the wall, moving through windows. Another woman subjects her body to a ritual of beautification that is both grotesque and not so far from what some of us do every day. Her body is washed like the laundry, going round in a washing machine, her nails are done by an elaborate contraption and her face by an even more unfathomable machine.
|Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2012|
Fans are everywhere, as are air conditioners that leak on hot plates and create a sizzle sounds, both in the films and as objects in the space of the museum. Again in contradistinction to our expectations, fans create static environments in spite of the moving air. They always function in spaces that are unusable because they are too big or too small. Holes, openings also lead nowhere. Or things appear out of holes that need to be bigger—like body parts coming through holes in the ground that end up on the other side of a wall in Squeeze 2012. There is a lack of logic to the openings of spaces, suggesting entrapment, or at least the opposite of freedom. This is accentuated by the question of where a given space is in relation to another, or the one that connects it. Squeeze brings these recurring motifs together when we see women put their arms in holes in the ground, only to come out the other end and be massaged by another row of women, in another country. The two cannot see each other, their work is connected, but we don’t exactly know how. The message in such videos is clear: the alienation of work, of work for women, their exploitation in the name of production. Even though this message might seem obvious, the way Rottenberg delivers it is ingenious.
|Mika Rottenberg, No Nose Knows, 2015|
Exploitation reaches excessive and comedic proportions with the excavation of pearls in No Nose Knows (2015). One row of woman tediously remove pearls from oysters, separate out the perfect ones from the duds. A woman with a nose that is equally sick and suffering as those of the men in Sneeze, smells flowers and sneezes out fully cooked plates of noodles and pasta--both of the Chinese and Italian varieties. The woman sits at the end of a production line of sorts that we never see in its entirety--this confusion in the relations between spaces and the activities that take place therein is one of the result of Rottenberg's inventive uses of the moving image. With each sneeze, each plate of noodles her nose grows longer and redder. She too goes through an elaborate production process to make her into the image that she is before she goes to work to smell plants and sneeze noodles. And by the time she gets to work we wonder why she bothered because the make up is already beginning to smudge. At her feet are two upturned feet in a bowl of pearls, apparently from the floor where the women are taking pearls out of oysters, an activity that nevertheless appears as though it is happening in another country.
|Pears from the Ruan Shi Jewellery factory, which we assume to be those from |
No One Knows
In these films, everything and everyone is commodified, everything can be sold, everything is given a value. This connects to the domino effect of the production process. Where each activity connects to the next, but their exact connection is less clear, just like the production process as it is today. Moreover Rottenberg connects the video world and our world. The pearls made at the Ruan Shi Jewellery factory in No Nose Knows are on display, in bags, made into bunnies at the entrance to this video exhibition. We literally walk inside to find where this display comes from, how it got here. Again, the relationship between representation and reality is confused.
This is abstract film at its best. The artificiality of the image, raising questions of capitalism, of commodification and the role of the woman’s body within that is rarely done with such sophistication today. And added to this is how compelling the films are: it was extremely difficult to leave the looped films. Because with seamless transition around the loop, I kept wondering where I was inside the video. Had I seen this scene before? So it creates this situation where we just continue watching, like we are some kind of video game, unable to distinguish the time and space of our own experience.