With a colorful, glitzy, and seemingly lighthearted aesthetic, the works in Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition touch on heavy topics such as sweatshop labor, the role of women in the workplace, the inequities of global capitalism, and immigration. Although her imagery is frequently sensual, Rottenberg’s work can offer a sobering exploration of cultural and gender identities.
The show features three video installations, plus a small selection of kinetic sculptures and installations—all of which were created within the past four years. In a recent interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the Buenos Aires–born artist, who studied in Israel and New York, where she now resides, refers to her endeavor as “social Surrealism” and a “spiritual kind of Marxism.” This vision is expressed in the two most recent video installations on view, Cosmic Generator (2017), commissioned for last year’s Skulptur Projekte Münster—making its US debut here—and NoNoseKnows, which was featured in the 2015 Venice Biennale as part of Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition “All the World’s Futures.”
Outlandish and captivating, Cosmic Generator is a roughly twenty-six-minute video shot partly in Mexicali, along the Mexico-US border. As in many of Rottenberg’s videos, scenes filmed on location are interspersed with those shot on sets of her own design. In the opening, the camera leads the viewer through tunnels ostensibly connecting the various funky workshops and restaurants shown later. The tunnel imagery immediately suggests the futility of the impending border wall with Mexico, which appears under construction in several above-ground shots in the work.
Most of the protagonists in Rottenberg’s videos are women laborers—a focus inspired in part by her study of Marx’s Capital. In NoNoseKnow, Chinese women work at a frantic pace to separate cultured pearls from oysters. The stars of Cosmic Generator are waitresses in the Mexicali restaurants and workers in cramped spaces who perform absurd tasks, like crushing colored light bulbs with a hammer. Some of the workshops depicted in the film produce what appear to be glittery tinsel garland, blinking strands of colorful lights, and similarly cheesy party decorations. The soundtrack features jingling noises punctuated by electronic buzzes and blips. Garlands and other gaudy ornaments similar to those in the film appear in an installation, also titled Cosmic Generator, that fills the gallery just outside the screening room.
The only men in the cast are Lilliputians, tiny gray-haired figures in business suits. In one scene, they are reduced to appetizers, writhing on plates served by giant waitresses. Humorous and a touch perverse, images like these in the video recall certain fantastic scenes in Matthew Barney films, especially those in the “Cremaster Cycle” (1994–2002), as well as works of classic Surrealist cinema, particularly films by Luis Buñuel.
Rottenberg’s mesmerizing kinetic sculptures “Ponytails” (2014) are likewise comic and a bit obscene. A mechanized system causes ponytails—one blonde and one dark-haired, installed in separate galleries—to extend and flip in a frantically repeating cycle through holes in the walls. The “Ponytails” protrude through the glory hole–like openings, as if Rottenberg has assigned a phallic role to this typically feminine attribute. Another installation, Ceiling Fan Composition #4 (2016), invites viewers to peek through narrow horizontal slits in a gallery wall to view spinning ceiling fans bathed in pastel light. Surprising holes in walls, floors, and ceilings often figure in Rottenberg’s work, where they hint at voyeuristic thrills, or, as with the tunnels of Cosmic Generator, offer a means of connecting different points in time and space, like portals to another dimension.