LOS ANGELES — Hauser & Wirth’s current exhibition of the work of Mika Rottenberg is the artist’s first major presentation on the West Coast, somewhat surprising given that her surreal and subversive videos exploring globalization, labor, and spectacle seem a perfect fit for Los Angeles. The show features three video works, fingerprint drawings, and a series of kinetic sculptures that humorously skewer the promises of late-stage capitalism, even as they offer a glimpse of its gleaming allure.
“Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3)” (2017–18) offers perhaps the best introduction to Rottenberg’s oeuvre. Filmed on-site at a market for plastic goods in Yiwu, China, and Mexicali’s Chinatown, in Mexico, the video mixes scenes of these real sites with elements of magical realism shot in a studio. Slow pans over vendors sitting in their booths full of cheap, glittering, rainbow wares are juxtaposed with Chinese restaurants in the Mexican border city, where miniature besuited corporate clones wriggle on beds of cilantro.
A tracking shot reveals a tunnel (of the kind dug under the current United States border by smugglers) that magically connects the two locations on opposite sides of the world — an analogue version of the digital networks that moves capital around the world at the touch of a button, even as people’s movements are curtailed by physical borders. The distinction between fantasy architecture and real space is further blurred by a fabricated tunnel, through which viewers enter the space, and a curtain of colored tinsel through which they exit.
“NoseKnows (50 Kilos Variant)” (2015) was filmed at a pearl farm in Zhuji, China, where workers at long tables delicately insert foreign cells into oysters to create cultured pearls. One of the workers turns a hand crank that operates a fan on the floor above, blowing pollen into the nose of a blond woman; her sneezes result in various dishes of pasta that pile up on her desk as her nose grows à la Pinocchio.
It is a mirror process to the one taking place below, and harkens back to her short film “Sneeze” (2012) in which men with grotesque prosthetic proboscises sneeze out steaks, rabbits, and light bulbs. In a conversation with Alex Sloane, Associate Curator of Performance and Programs at MOCA, Rottenberg said she is interested in the “magical process that creates value — how an irritant, mucous, becomes a gemstone.” A 50-kilo bag of cultured pearls sits outside the screening room, a tempting, tangible reminder of this value.
Despite all the tantalizing visuals and focus on goods and products in her videos, Rottenberg says she is less interested in things themselves than in the connections and networks between them. In another discussion, with artist Paul McCarthy and ICA LA Executive Director Anne Ellegood, she said, “I’m not a big object person. It’s really about everything around the objects that I’m interested in.” To this end, sound plays an important role in her videos. They hum, sizzle, crackle, with the mundane sounds of industry, the buzz of electricity, the simmering of boiling pots and frying eggs.
Rottenberg’s fascination with this ASMR type of auditory activation is evident in “Spaghetti Blockchain” (2019), which features such enticing sounds as a jelly roll being sliced, dry pasta crunching, a rumbling harvester gathering potatoes, and hands squishing green goo, as well as the mesmerizing sounds of Tuvan female throat singers from the group Tyva Kyzy, who were filmed remotely in Siberia after the artist met them in Brooklyn. “Voice turns into a material, almost becomes a shape,” Rottenberg said in her talk with McCarthy and Ellegood, describing the singers. The nonsense sounds are depicted in various chambers of a clicking, hexagonal machine, which offers up each new vignette as it rotates, collapsing real distance through its clockwork mechanism.
This exhibition leads up to the release of Rottenberg’s first full-length film, remote, which will premiere in September. Made in collaboration with filmmaker Mahyad Tousi, the film is set in the near future and features five women in different countries around the world speaking different languages, including Korean, Croatian, Farsi, and Spanish. Despite their geographic and linguistic separation, they are connected through their shared love of a Korean dog-grooming show. “[T]hey find this portal through the show that unleashes this ancient internet,” Rottenberg told ArtNews in 2020.
Rottenberg further explores this inherent tension in a globalism that isolates even as it connects in the show’s physical works, such as her fingerprint drawings, brightly colored indexical marks that assemble into microbe-like colonies, or serve as the basis for drawings of body parts. Rube Goldberg-esque kinetic machines spin plants and produce (real and fake) ponytails of hair or fake nails on fake fingers in absurd, pointless, but momentarily fun displays. Visitors are invited to turn the crank on a couple of these, heightening the illusion of agency in a system where productivity is valued above all else.
Despite the overarching themes of alienation, fragmentation, and “global domination,” as Ellegood put it, there are indeed elements of lightness, wonder, and curiosity in Rottenberg’s work. The soul-crushing industrial architecture and futile labor of her videos is tempered by small moments of awe, like the bursting smoke bubbles that float throughout the corridors of “NoNoseKnows.” Ellegood described Rottenberg’s work as highlighting the “banality of spectacle, or the spectacle of banality.” “Steam evaporates in a different way each time,” Rottenberg replied. “It’s super banal, but also a spectacle.”
Mika Rottenberg continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California) through October 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.