“Once in a while it happens that I vomit up a bunny,” confesses the narrator of Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.” He proceeds to shrug off the anomaly: “it’s no reason not to live in whatever house, it’s not reason for one to blush and isolate oneself and to walk around keeping one’s mouth shut.” Negation is at home in language, but bodies have different agendas: they itch and squirm, they complain, and loudly, in Mika Rottenberg’s videos. Take her short film Sneeze (2012), in which each of her red-nosed characters attempts to affect nonchalance, to resist the loss of control and encroaching release, until – like Cortázar’s rabbit regurgitator – they’re finally overpowered: achoo and a bunny, sometimes a steak, a lightbulb. All of the banal emissions of the human body, all of its grimy excesses and cultivated oddities are quite literally what power Rottenberg’s works. The social totalities of her worlds are born out of the reconfiguration of superfluous discharges as productive forces. Why would you keep your mouth shut if the everyday drips and secretions of your nasal cavities were objects of value?
A commodity first appears – per Marx – as an obvious, trivial thing. Rottenberg, born in Argentina and raised in Israel by parents who were active in the country’s labor movement, is keenly attentive to what happens next: the scrutiny that defamiliarizes the object, reveals it as “a very strange thing,” according to Marx, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” For lack of a better analogue, generations of Marxists have likened the processes that conceal the provenance of a commodity’s value – human labor – to magic. Rottenberg takes the metaphor seriously. The bizarre and often purposeless items that populate the assembly lines in her videos are products of female bodies whose excesses have become fantastic, a transformation that turns them into labor. In Dough (2006), a white woman in a factory setting places freshly cut flowers on a pulley designed to reach a black woman’s nose, whose allergic reactions produce tears that are funneled into a hose and then sprinkled onto a lump of dough. Upon contact with the tears, the dough rises and is then shrink-wrapped for purchase and consumption. Squeeze (2010) invites the viewer into a traveling, self-contained factory from which the arms of some women jut out to harvest lettuce in Arizona, while elsewhere within the same structure other laborers are busy scraping rubber strands off trees. Nowhere is there a better synthesis of magical realism and the historical materialism of Marx.
Mika Rottenberg, “Spaghetti Blockchain” (still), 2019. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Rottenberg’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Easypieces, is a retrospective of relatively recent works, and features kinetic sculptures alongside several short films. Tellingly, the show takes its title from Richard Feynman’s canonical primer on the fundamentals of physics, Six Easy Pieces. That book is notable for having popularized the so-called “Feynman diagrams,” which brought complex mathematical expressions into the realm of the pictorial. Functionally, these diagrams were revolutionary. Aesthetically, they took the form of Rube Goldberg machines – systems that complete simple tasks through elaborate chain reactions. It doesn’t take a profound familiarity with Rottenberg’s oeuvre to realize that the modes of production in her worlds are structured in the same manner. NoNoseKnows (2015), featured in the exhibit, is one of the tightest examples. A desk fan connects a group of female Chinese workers cultivating pearls to a ruddy-faced white woman sitting in an office filled with flowers. As one of the workers begins to turn a hand crank, the fan wafts the scent of flowers into the woman’s nose, causing her to sneeze out heaping portions of pasta and Chinese food – the workers’ sustenance, we can assume.
Rottenberg’s most recent videos betray her developing interest in the rise of cryptocurrency and decentralized systems for organizing data. The result is hit-or-miss. Spaghetti Blockchain (2019) connects the deep hum of a Tuvan throat singer to the CERN generator in Switzerland, seeming to imply that the former is what powers the latter. It’s clear that Rottenberg is trying to emulate the logic of peer-to-peer networks through her editing, but the result lacks the satisfying build-up to a gestalt that characterizes her earlier works. In a clever move that rescued my attention, a factory for producing ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) makes an appearance. Few contemporary cultural forms have as strange a relationship to the commodity as ASMR, where the value of an object is dictated not by brand or status, but by the sounds it produces when tapped on, scraped, and rubbed against a microphone. Watch any ASMR video on YouTube and you’ll find comments about its effectiveness in treating anxiety and insomnia. The inexhaustible availability of commodities in our times has bred a set of disorders unique to younger generations, who’ve figured out ways to hack and repurpose the objects that ail them in order to find comfort. It’s exactly the kind of economy to which Rottenberg pays attention.
I was reminded while walking through Easypieces of the theorist Sianne Ngai’s work on the gimmick, which she defines as “a specifically capitalist aesthetic phenomenon,” something that irritates us because it seems “both to work too hard and work too little.” Ngai sees Rube Goldberg machines as the gimmick par excellence. They’re meant to accomplish small tasks or produce basic commodities in record time, and yet they make labor appear excessive and counterintuitive. Within Rottenberg’s “social surrealist” capitalism, where the ability to work already stems from the fantastical reconfiguration of excess, it isn’t only labor that appears counterintuitive, but also the commodity. Cue the frustration. “Why would anyone want a shrink-wrapped piece of raw dough with a [human] tear?”, asked Chen Tamir in an early review of Dough for C Magazine. Truly, what kind of function could such an object possibly fulfill? Devotional? Scientific? Aesthetic? An ambivalent commodity is an irksome commodity, sure. But since when? If it’s almost impossible to imagine the end of capitalism, as people are fond of saying these days, it seems prudent to start with the reminder, which is everywhere in Rottenberg’s works, that the materiality of the world precedes the commodity form as we know it, and will (hopefully) outlive it.
Are Rottenberg’s scenarios meant to be depictions of alternative modes of labor, allegories for the process of artistic creation, or satires of the reality we already inhabit? Critics haven’t reached a consensus. When her task has been read as critique, she’s been lauded for highlighting how the embodied labor of women is undervalued within capitalism, but she’s also been charged with objectifying the actors she often casts in her videos: professional weightlifters, fetish performers, and other atypically-talented women who rent out their bodies online. Complaints about artists who profit off their critiques of capitalism are a bit like knee-jerk reactions: easy and abrupt, but not without cause. When I first saw Easypieces at the New Museum in New York, the newly-formed union of museum workers was preparing to strike over the administration’s refusal to begin contract negotiations. As I left the museum, I thought of all the visitors who would decide to cross the picket line to spend a few hours of their day among Rottenberg’s pieces, watching female workers manufacturing pearls and plastic trinkets. Then I remembered a story I’d read about the production of one of her first films, Cheese (2007), which stars six women with incredibly long hair: “They formed a union against me and went on strike, and everything collapsed on the first day,” Rottenberg explained. “Unions,” she concluded, “are a powerful tool.” How wonderful it would’ve been to see that included in the wall text.