Frieze week in London is a well-oiled money machine: thousands of artworks at Frieze Art Fair where the average price is around £100.000, record auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and all major commercial galleries putting on their best-selling artists. Banksy’s stunt was of course a reaction to all this artworld extravaganza, but long-lasting art is based on more than a gimmick with a shredder. Enter Mika Rottenberg.
Ironically, I discovered Mika Rottenberg at my first year guiding at Frieze Art Fair in 2012. Her work stood out amidst a crowded fair. Candy-coloured, boxed viewing stations contain films that in turn consists of different levels, as if entering a multi-storey, well…, store. What you see in Rottenberg’s films is at once highly seductive and repulsive.
Argentinian-born, New York-based Mika Rottenberg had her first solo show in the UK in 2012 at Nottingham Contemporary and is inaugurating Goldsmiths’ Centre for Contemporary art (Goldsmiths CCA). Located on the campus of Goldsmiths University of London, it is London’s newest contemporary arts institution. A Grade II listed building, this former Victorian bathhouse was re-designed by Turner Prize winners Assemble. It is the perfect stage for Rottenberg’s work.
Laid out over three levels are three of Rottenberg’s films contained in architectural viewing stations, surrounded by sculptures and installations that move and pulse, and more screens attached to the walls and ceilings. Walking around, I felt like the participator in some mysterious, walk-through play.
The protagonists in Rottenberg’s films are working women and a few effeminate men. At first it looks like the films are staged in beauty salons: a woman is lying down on a massage bed, another one is clipping her long fake nails. A man is sneezing, his nose growing longer and redder. They are all extorting something from their bodies.
Then there are groups of women intensely concentrated on some sort of mind-dulling labour. Balls Bowls Souls Holes shows a bingo event. A bored-looking woman pulls the balls from a machine, reading out their numbers in a monotonous hum. The women crossing out numbers in the brightly-lit hall look no less bored than the leader of the pack.
In NoNoseKnowns, women sit around a table in a basement extracting little shiny pearls from oysters. Shown in close-up, the wet flesh of the shells contrasts with the hard surface of the pearl. All Rottenberg’sfilms simultaneously show us different rooms, interconnected by tunnels or holes. One of the pearl-workers absent-mindedly pedals a wheel, and we see the pearls being transported upwards, to a room containing another woman surrounded by flowers. The breeze from the upward movement causes the flower pollen to enter her nose and makes her sneeze repeatedly. She miraculously sneezes out plates of noodles (the sneeze is a re-occurring motif for Rottenberg).
In Balls Bowls Souls Holes we can see the bingo-balls pop down a tunnel into a level below, where a sad looking male somehow turns them into cloth pegs that he carefully clips first to his chin, like a beard, then all around his face like a radiant sun. These individual scenes make no sense, but somehow in their entirety they form their own subjective logic.
The way we encounter Rottenberg’s films within the exhibition space is essential. Her stages set up the scene and anticipate what is to come. Making your way to see the boxed-in films, you pass sculpted props. The NoNoseKnows viewing area is entered through a shop front, dotted out with beads and pearl necklaces; the bingo event in Balls Bowls Souls Holes is entered through a bright blue revolving door, passing a vintage bingo-balls machine on the way.
I am dizzy and disoriented but somehow cannot stop watching. Rottenberg’s characters are dispassionate, but very intense, staring at me from their monotonous labours. Other characters feel trapped in too small spaces, and I too start to shift and turn in the boxed-in viewing area. I am waiting for a wrap-up, a release from these prisons of commerce, but none is forthcoming.
When I eventually extract myself from the films, and wander through the maze-like corridors, I am startled by a ponytail sticking out of the wall, eerily bouncing up and down. It feels like a part of someone’s body left lying around from the films. A dark room emanates a strong hissing sound, coming from from a selection of giant frying pans. They turn on and off to the beat of a mysterious purple light. The artist is already cooking up her next realist-fantastical contortion.
Beauty-industry mix-ups that lead to futile labour that lead to an abject product that is then extracted from someone’s body, making its way back into the store. Rottenberg makes us feel the complex absurdities of a globalised economy, and the fragility of human bodies trapped within it. She cleverly uses cinematic, sculptural and architectural dimensions to design systems with their own ogic, but constantly on the verge of collapse.
The people (mostly women) she hires for her film are referred to as ‘talents’ rather then actors: people who earn their money using their bodies, such as wrestlers. Rottenberg lets them retain control over her narrative, which adds an interesting layer to their seemingly automated actions on screen.
When I go to Frieze Art Fair the next day with its cacophony of thousands of colourful, textured, screaming art objects, I cannot stop thinking about Mika Rottenberg. At the same time, I feel energised watching the expensive, shiny art being sold to the beautifully dressed people. Our capitalist world excites both immense desire and a huge sense of emptiness, and the unexplainable urge to keep watching, and keep buying.
If you are experiencing exhaustion from Frieze, make your way to Lewisham, and let yourself be shaken by the art market’s antidote that is Mika Rottenberg. Experience art at its best: in dialogue with the architecture of a place. You will probably feel confused, repulsed, and strangely drawn to her colourful world. You might leave the show and wonder for days why it is bugging you so much. And that is what a great artists like Mika Rottenberg can do.
Mika Rottenberg, Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art, until 4 November 2018