After years of releasing discombobulating, irresistible, dialogue-free shorts, Mika Rottenberg is readying her first full-length feature.
Titled Remote and created with Mahyad Tousi, it even has a narrative, though one that is something less than straightforward. “It’s about five women,” Rottenberg said. “It happens in the near future, in 2027—or 2032. We’re not exactly sure about the exact date, but now it is 2027. And it’s five women in different parts of the world, all quarantined still. But it’s a different pandemic. They all connect through a South Korean dog-grooming show that they’re all fans of. So they find this portal through the show that unleashes this ancient internet.” The dialogue is in Korean, and there will be an interactive online version and a cinematic version. (The project is supported by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, and the London-based nonprofit Artangel; both will screen it.)
It goes without saying that this has been an unprecedented year, but if ever there were an artist oddly attuned to the vagaries of this moment, it is Rottenberg. From a practical standpoint, the 43-year-old artist has almost been preparing for it. “Traveling to an exhibition is amazing, but it takes so much,” she said via Zoom, one recent morning from her Upstate New York home. “Before the pandemic, I’d been committing to reduce the studio’s footprint to not travel as much as it did.”
Even more to the point, her videos are bewitching visions of elaborate and arcane systems that join disparate places, and they often incorporate the kind of claustrophobic rooms and bodily secretions that once were merely discomfiting and are now terror-inducing.
In Sneeze (2012), besuited men with throbbing noses sneeze out live rabbits, juicy steaks, and lightbulbs. In NoNoseKnows (2015), sparkles emerge from the schnoz of a sniffling woman who then sneezes noodle dishes. Also, a set of upturned bare feet emerge from a basket of pearls beneath her desk, and a young woman in a crowded underground factory cranks a handle that activates a fan that blows air onto a potted plant that apparently triggers that olfactory response. But we’re just scratching surface here—there’s a lot going on.
Everyone in Rottenberg’s videos is tied together in ways that are absurd, surprising, and sometimes upsetting. Everyone is a different cog in the machine, but temporary escapes are possible.
Salespeople in a gargantuan wholesale market in Yiwu, China, work at their computers, text, and sleep inside booths stuffed with pool toys, fake plants, or soccer balls (that’s documentary footage), and they’re linked via mysterious tunnels with the border town of Mexicali, Mexico, where men are imprisoned inside a food cart (that’s staged, to be clear, as are most of her vignettes). Viewing that video, titled Cosmic Generator (2017), “is similar to going through a global short-cut: the image shifts back and forth from one point of the globe to another, where goods travel freely, while people don’t,” as philosopher Bruno Latour and curator Martin Guinard said in an email. (They organized the current Taipei Biennial, which includes the piece.)
There are also moments of deadpan humor, stillness, and grace in Rottenberg’s work. Smoke-filled bubbles float and pop, and hands wield lighters to burn mini marshmallows that secure a toothpick sculpture. “We’re so seduced by materials and, you know, shiny things and moving things,” the artist said. “I, at least, get mesmerized—hypnotized.”
But even her most crowd-pleasing moments have a sharp critical bite. Margot Norton, who organized a 2019 Rottenberg exhibition at the New Museum in New York, where she is a curator, said that the two discussed “a lack of physical interaction with material in today’s society, which is mediated behind screens, and how things like ASMR videos are providing fodder for that lack of physical stimulation.” The artist’s potent videos fill that emptiness. They can be deeply satisfying, awakening unexpected physical sensations in viewers, while still exuding a sadness, as mere substitutes for the pleasures of the real world.
Rottenberg’s art examines “processes that betray an obvious and often willful disconnection and alienation between laborers, suppliers, products, merchants, and consumers,” said Tobias Berger, who’s assembled a show her work at JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun in Hong Kong, where he is head of art. For Berger, “it is not by chance that a lot of Mika’s work is connected to, or takes place in, Asia, especially China. It is here where these new ways of production, and communication, are the most extreme and where a lot of products and ideas currently originate and journey around the world in sometimes strange ways.”
In her newest work, though, the 18-minute video Spaghetti Blockchain, Rottenberg has trained her eye, in part, on an age-old art form in the Siberian countryside. Against rolling hills, a Tuvan throat singer intones an undulating drone into a hexagonal tube that seems to power a bizarre factory where a man’s hair is dyed, foam is salted, and jelly loaves in brilliant colors are slapped, sliced, and fried by hands with bright red nails.
The singing “is super visceral—it kind of shakes your whole body from inside,” Rottenberg said. “Sound, for me, is so interesting. It’s somewhere between a material and energy. Especially the bass sounds, it really feels like you could almost touch it. You can almost see it coming out of her mouth.” Tuvan singers, members of the group Tyva Kyzy, were shot in Siberia by a Moscow-based film crew—an example of the artist’s carbon-reducing efforts—after she met with the musicians in Brooklyn. Their music seems to have its own autonomous existence.
Slyly, Rottenberg’s artistic approach proposes that the world is teeming with forms of life that we are only beginning to recognize. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s 2010 book New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics has been an influence, and she described it as being “about this dichotomy between animate objects and inanimate objects being disturbed, and being questioned.” To put it simply, “We are all matter. Those particles are something that is common between people and objects.”
This is an art that channels the hulking, unseen logistical structures that run modern society, and it alludes to physics experiments that could reorder our understanding of the universe. The Large Hadron Collider appears in Spaghetti Blockchain, its massive machines humming away in a manner not dissimilar from the throat singing, as the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto director of programs November Paynter pointed out in an interview. (The work was commissioned by CERN, which oversees the LHC near Geneva, Switzerland; the New Museum; MOCA Toronto, which is currently hosting Paynter’s Rottenberg show; and the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany, which screened it earlier this year.)
Given the improbable juxtapositions and committed randomness of Rottenberg’s videos, one might take her to be an inveterate television junkie. One would be wrong. “I think it’s better for my creativity that I don’t see too many things,” she said, when asked about her TV-viewing habits, “because then I could borrow ideas too much. I like to know that it exists, but I don’t like to completely consume it.”
“Mika Rottenberg: Sneeze” is on view at JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun in Hong Kong through February 7. The artist’s Cosmic Generator video is included in the Taipei Biennial in Taiwan, which concludes March 14, 2021. And “Mika Rottenberg: Spaghetti Blockchain” runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto through April 11, 2021; it will travel to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal later in the year.