At the crux of Mika Rottenberg’s sumptuously colored video installations is the female body and its relationship to systems of production. While completing an MFA degree at Columbia University in 2004, Rottenberg encountered the writings of Karl Marx, whose theories on value and labor have since filtered into her work. Rottenberg’s protagonists undertake strenuous, repetitive actions to generate curious, inane products. Her videos are construed as elaborate fictions about how value can be extracted from the human body.
Among the gestures that set Rottenberg’s work apart from that of other artists—such as Andy Warhol’s Factory or Matthew Barney’s athletically and sexually charged Cremaster Cycle—is her conspicuous absence from her own videos. Rottenberg casts other female individuals (from bodybuilders to the very longhaired or inordinately flexible) whose extraordinary physiques become sites of extreme production. Their figures fill the expanse of the frame and succumb to such bodily functions as sneezing and sweating, which Rottenberg then siphons into her economy of goods. Preposterously intricate assembly lines—facilitated by limbs and such fabulized contraptions as chutes, doors, gears, shafts, pipes, and pumps that whir, heave, and crunch—transform fingernail clippings into maraschino cherries, wrest sweat for scented moist towelettes, and funnel teardrops into dough. In Squeeze (2010), a highly wrought cube of rubbish winks at the seemingly arbitrary values ascribed to art objects. For Rottenberg the final product is, ultimately, worthless. Within her simulated universe, value is determined by the effort, by the physical exertion, invested in its making.
The saturation of colors and textures in Rottenberg’s videos is matched by a sensation of claustrophobia aroused by her tightly framed shots and intimate viewing spaces intended to heighten viewers’ awareness of their own physicality. To reach the projection space of her latest video installation NoNoseKnows, visitors must first enter through a pearl factory. The artist creates a threshold (or rather, in her words, an “obstacle”) that visitors must consciously transgress to access the viewing chamber. Once they are inside, Rottenberg unfurls a world that traverses pearl culturing— a prosthetic nose, animated explosions, and spaghetti— to tease out ideas on irritation, cultural bastardization, and dematerialization.