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I first encountered Mika Rottenberg’s work at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where a dimly-lit, cave-like space was carved out as a viewing room for her critically-acclaimed video work, NoNoseKnows (2015). The installation around the video resembled a Chinese pearl market: pink and white pearl necklaces, neon buckets filled with pearls, ziplock bags of pearls. I watched, hypnotized, as the 22-minute video alternated between seemingly disparate universes: rows of warmly-dressed Chinese women workers sitting at a long table, lit by an overhead fluorescent light, carefully shovel bits of mussel flesh into living oysters, engaging in the fragile process of pearl irritation and seeding, while a tall white woman sits in a generic office surrounded by bouquets of flowers.
NoNoseKnows (50 kilos variant) is included in Rottenberg’s first major West Coast presentation at Hauser & Wirth—though accompanied in this version by only a single 50-kilo bag of pearls in a nod to earlier, more immersive presentations. In the video, the white woman sniffs the flowers as her nose gradually enlarges and, by way of a sneeze, produces plate after plate of lightly-jiggling pasta and noodles. Her world and that of the Chinese laborers have the surprising kind of interconnection emblematic of Rottenberg’s oeuvre: from time to time, one of the pearl-seeding workers turns a hand crank and gazes upward, setting off a fan in the woman’s office that wafts the flowers’ scent toward her, triggering her pasta-sneezes. Through visceral, gently unsettling, and tightly edited vignettes that sharply toggle between realism and fantasy, Rottenberg’s videos foreground the hypocrisies embedded in our globalized labor system, inviting us to think critically about our time and its many perversions, all while anchoring us in our bodily presence.
NoNoseKnows accompanies two more recent videos, Cosmic Generator (2017) and Spaghetti Blockchain (2019), as well as kinetic sculptures and drawings. The sculptures—composed of objects (plastic cabbages and fingers, glimmering pom poms) that twist and twirl—echo the videos’ idiosyncratic landscapes of commodities and bodily labor, but do not have the same hypnotic visual power. The loosely figurative, colorful drawings are further abstracted from the social and material tensions so carefully crafted in the video works.
Rottenberg’s videos physically collapse distances now rendered obsolete in the global circulation of commodities: in Cosmic Generator, workers selling plastic items en masse in a wholesale market in Yiwu, China are connected through a fictional tunnel to a Chinese restaurant at the U.S.-Mexico border. From the market, plastic circulates freely for “easy” consumption and disposal. At the restaurant, bodies move much less easily across a fraught border landscape. The montage of these spaces leaves us with a new, more instinctive understanding of the intricate human forces behind the objects that populate our material realities.
Despite the at-times dystopian nature of their subject matter, Rottenberg’s videos never fall into didacticism—the experience is more like stumbling down a dreamlike rabbit hole, each video offering a window into an elaborate and unsettlingly pleasurable adjacent universe. Her mystical manipulation of sound and matter furthers this effect, as in Spaghetti Blockchain, in which a Tuvan throat singer in the Siberian mountains is seamlessly juxtaposed with quickly sequenced shots of the Large Hadron Collider and an imaginary ASMR factory.
We emerge from these viewing experiences noticeably changed, though inarticulate, unable to describe the uniquely bizarre nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Entirely bereft of language, Rottenberg’s videos convey a visual and auditory experience made possible only by the medium’s specific narrative capacities, exploited to transformational effect. Her videos are thus a rare opportunity to palpably visualize the hard-to-fathom scale of the systems that fuel our society’s relentless consumption—and its myriad effects on the ways we inhabit our interconnected, object-ridden world.
Mika Rottenberg runs from June 23–October 2, 2022 at Hauser & Wirth (901 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90013).