Mika Rottenberg

by Shana Nys Dambrot

Navigating the Obstructive With the Routine
Mika Rottenberg makes experiential, immersive, performative video works displayed in multisensory, sculptural environments. But to find inspiration for her fraught, fantastical cross-platform art and the contextual environments in which she installs them, Rottenberg need only look around. She has a penchant for deconstructing transformative processes of fabrication, treating production mechanisms as allegories for imagination and creativity, additionally approaching the female body as a site for narratives of societal and economic imbalance. She loves bingo parlors, seedy hotels, infomercials; she is fascinated by beauty supplies, processed foods, global ecosystems, and the Guinness Book of Records. Encountering persons, places, and things in the normal course of events, inevitably she wonders, What is really going on in there? How is that made, and by whom? What does it mean to have luck? And just like that, she’s obsessed. Once she wondered how maraschino cherries were produced. But instead of Googling it or calling a factory, she imagined. The result was “Mary’s Cherries” (2004), a viscerally unsettling, chromatically saturated, sweaty yet hilarious video in which it is revealed that a series of pedal-powered machines take in harvested red-lacquered fingernails and put out glistening red candied cocktail fruit.

In 2014, Rottenberg’s wildly popular and critically acclaimed video installation “Bowls Balls Souls Holes” was shown at Andrea Rosen Gallery as well as the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. “Bowls Balls Souls Holes” is about how luck is made and distributed, and stars a guy who can stretch his skin impressively far, who, in the course of events, gradually configures dozens of colored plastic clothespins around the edge of his face. These pins were dropped through a hole in the floor above him, leading in turn from a bingo parlor where the artist calls out alphanumeric sequences that determine inscrutable facts, including how many and how often clothespins are released. Like all her work, the cast is comprised of interesting-looking women of a wide array of ages, ethnicities, body types, and backgrounds. The sun and the moon play pivotal roles as well, as elements among many in a multi-storied architecture of time and space in which the artist revisits her most favorite methodology: cause and effect, from “a psychological, sculptural, and social perspective.”

“Squeeze” (2010) is one of Rottenberg’s most widely known and affecting works. Elements include a dripping air conditioner unit, melting ice caps, iceberg lettuce, face makeup, formless masses of latex, ritual cleansing, and the promise of a compacted sculptural object produced by their various mechanizations—which never quite materializes, though it does finally exist. Often the work’s mis-en-place includes not only objects and settings used in the filming, but singular works made from materials borrowed from it—tin foil, gum, wires, locks of hair, mattresses, and potted plants. There’s always some obstruction to navigate on entering her spaces, which attunes the viewer to the physicality of her narrative right off, in a way that telegraphs transcendence from the projection screen. She works sculpturally and performatively, to articulate overt relationships between architecture and the body—both on film and in the room. Her favorite thing about video is the way it can render parallel dimensions as though collapsed into one another, interwoven across time and space, defying logic to get at something deeper. This might all sound somewhat esoteric, but the results of her magical thinking end up imposingly physical, looking more like gout-stricken Rube Goldberg machines than like paraconceptual exercises. Although her work screams analog, she’s not at all operating in opposition to technology. If anything, she is generating her own technologies—using wires, yams, clothespins, hair tonic, dough, and sweat. We work so hard to remove evidence of the human hand in our objects—Rottenberg is just putting it back.