The Bass Museum | December 7, 2017 – April 30, 2018
Readings of Mika Rottenberg’s work nearly always herald it as Marxist (or at least anti-capitalist) critique. It’s undeniable that her works address issue of labor, and that such a topic is imperative. But such readings of Rottenberg’s work are too simplistic: taking on factory work does not a Marxist critique make, but moreover, such readings overlook her works’ strongest points.
Take for instance the wall of air conditioning units dripping water into hot frying pans that serves as the entry to Rottenberg’s solo exhibition at the Bass Museum. Titled AC Trio (2016), the installation is spectacular and disgusting, mesmerizing and repulsive. And surely the AC units might speak to class and consumption—they call to mind a New York City housing project with seemingly infinite stacks of units, rather than the constantly blasting central air units more common to Miami, where they are currently installed. Such units rack up excessive bills and carbon footprints. But the sizzling sound of the AC juice hitting the hot frying pan is more absurdist than critical, as is the similarly mesmerizing composition of gigantic ceiling fans that comprise Ceiling Fan Composition #4 (2016), on view in the adjacent room.
The exhibition is sandwiched by two installations affixed to recent videos—NoNoseKnows (2015) and Cosmic Generator (loaded #2) (2017). The videos themselves are actually shown in traditional black boxes, rather than on monitors amongst elaborate installations that the artist used to exhibit earlier work. NoNoseKnows includes documentary footage from a pearl factory in China and shows women endlessly counting pearls and sorting them by color, quality, and size. The footage is interwoven with an absurdist narrative, wherein a white woman in middle management peddles a bike at a desk and sneezes out plates of Chinese food, while a large and seemingly heavy bubble floats but never pops in an adjacent room. The commentary is obvious—both in the sense that it is common knowledge and that it is legible in the work: factory labor has been outsourced to women of color.
This point is an important one, but this form of critique is, disappointingly, more literal and didactic—too on the nose, if you will—than the artist’s earlier videos, which elegantly blended fiction and fact in more nuanced ways. This is perhaps the result of the artist responding to and internalizing what I characterized as simplistic readings of her work. In past works, Rottenberg regularly hired women who rent their extraordinary bodies to perform. Cheese (2008), for instance, features a group of real women with hair well past their toes modeled after a historical family—the Seven Sutherland Sisters—who marketed a hair growth product to men and who themselves had long hair. (Although Cheese has only six sisters). Rottenberg’s camera played voyeur to these exhibitionists. These earlier works bring up interesting and complicated ethical issues surrounding the commodification of bodies and the objectification of women. Among the actresses in Cheese, for instance, there are feuds amongst long-haired women who enjoy indulging hair fetishists and see their ability to capitalize on male desire as empowering, while others find the fetishists degrading. Furthermore, I don’t know that NoNoseKnows necessarily shakes up any conversation. Unlike Cheese, it gives form to facts art-viewing audiences are already likely to know.
The forms it takes, however, are incredible. Colorful, intricate, absurdist, and textured, everything the artist produces is recognizable as Rottenberg. But these forms do little for advancing a Marxist critique. Instead, they delicately and complexly negotiate the lines between attraction, fetish, objectification, and perversion—and, specifically, how these lines might be negotiated to feminist ends, or how women might image their own bodies while responding to the long and abusive history of representations of women by men. So more precisely, her work can be considered Marxist in as much as it looks at how critiques of the commodification of everything—including bodies—intersects with the objectification of women’s bodies, by the apparatus of the camera and the ways in which women choose to commercialize their bodies.
Moreover, I question what Marxist critique can even do within a world where even criticism itself is a commodity. Admittedly, this is not a problem unique to Rottenberg, but the women Rottenberg hired for Cheese went on strike during production because they felt the artist had not given them enough time to tend to their hair. While she makes work that speaks to pressures to conform excess and extraordinary bodies to capitalist demands for productivity, she herself apparently struggled to accommodate such bodies. This is analogous to the problem of women working to reclaim images of their own bodies in that both are complex conundrums that to this day remain unresolved. This is Rottenberg’s strength: throughout, she reveals the absurdist impossibility of capitalist critique (though the later video works take this critique more seriously and literally) and does not resolve the complex ethical lines it walks. Rather, it highlights them, leaving viewers simultaneously uncomfortable and mesmerized.
Also on view are Rottenberg’s Ponytail (2016) series, which features ponytails coming out of holes in the gallery wall. They are soft and beautiful, but motorized, retooled as whips. The works imply that there could be living bodies behind those walls. But hair is often beautiful and alluring, until it is removed from the body. This calls to mind Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, which describes that which is cast off as that which disgusts—hair is only gross when not attached to a head. In the lineage of Duchamp’s—and, later, Pipilotti Rist’s—peephole that demands the viewer becomes a voyeur, Lips (Study #3) (2016) is a video viewed through a pair of puckered lips protruding from the walls. Inside, ponytails, lips, and butts come out of holes. Body parts are stripped from any subject, but it’s clear that there are living subjects we cannot see.
Having only seen the ponytails in photographs previously, I was surprised to find that the ponytails whip constantly. I had imagined instead that they would appear still and soft, whipping only occasionally, allowing viewers to trust them as soft and alluring, only to be proven wrong. Nonetheless, the ponytails’ subjectivity is an appropriately complicated one. They are literally objectified female body parts—and they have agency. Indeed, they could hurt you. Feminists have long debated whether intentional self-objectification can be retooled to empowering ends, even while it plays into patriarchal hands: a debate that is, to me, immensely uncomfortable and unresolved, and also elegantly captured by the divide amongst the long-haired women in Cheese. Rottenberg’s work reproduces such a productive discomfort in the way that it attracts and averts. Although in the artist’s own statements she sets out to justify the ethics of her actions (her voyeurism, for instance, has been questioned repeatedly), I find it so perplexing precisely because it revels in ethical ambiguity, foregrounding the disturbing complexity of the issues it takes on, rather than seeking neatly to resolve them.
is the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.