by Gabrielle Selz
There is an exuberant, technicolor poetry at play in the video pieces of Mika Rottenberg. Born in Argentina, raised in Israel, and now making her home in New York, Rottenberg is known for immersive installations that comment on the interconnection between humans and their consumption of mass-produced goods. Spaghetti Blockchain at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is Rottenberg’s first museum exhibition on the West Coast, and it’s a surreal, humorous, and occasionally subversive feast for the senses.
Everything in Rottenberg’s oeuvre is a portal. Her videos and sculptures unfold in a looped dreamscape with multiple points of entry and exits. In the video Sneeze (2012), for example, a man with a swollen red nose tilts his head back and sneezes. Out pops a raw steak, live rabbits, and a lightbulb. Especially a lightbulb–a nod to Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopic Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), the world’s earliest motion picture that sneezed an industry into existence. Because how things come into being is the heart of Rottenberg’s practice
Rottenberg’s critique of the surrealistic, sometimes absurdist aspects of contemporary materialism is a view in which everything—humans, pearls, inflatable pool toys, plastic flowers, spaghetti—is made of something else that is continuously evolving — part of a magical, depressing, terrifying, beautiful, noisy, entwined universe.
For Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3) (2017), Rottenberg filmed female laborers in an outdoor restaurant in Yiwu, China, and a plastic goods market in Mexicali, Mexico. Intercut sequences show them at work, stirring pots of soup in China, and in Mexico, crammed into tiny stalls swallowed by a plethora of glittering tinsel, plastic toys and LED Christmas lights. Between those segments, Rottenberg interweaves set designs shot in her studio. They lead us through a winding tunnel that mysteriously connects the two realms, an experience we activate by entering through one portal—a fabricated tunnel—and exiting through a doorway of hanging tinsel. For the workers, there is no magical escape hatch, no glittering exit. When Rottenberg’s camera pans outside the tunnel and the market, we see the US/Mexico border wall. The implication is clear: objects have more freedom than the humans who produce them.
Rottenberg explored these same themes in an earlier video, NoNoseKnows (2015) in which Bunny Glamazon, a 6-foot-4 fetish performer, sits in a room lined with shelves of flowers and dishes of food. Below, in a subterranean chamber, Asian women sit at an assembly line inserting severed muscle tissue into oyster shells, which are scavenged by other Asian women harvesting pearls. Nearby, a young woman operates a crank. As it turns, Bunny far above, sniffs a flower and sneezes. Out of her nose pop bowls of
pasta. The process repeats until, finally, Bunny leaves the room. She shuffles and stomps, a creaky door opens, and again she sniffs and achoos. The woman turns her squeaky crank. Oysters are pried open with cracks and sucking sounds, but the people pictured never speak. They interact only through mechanical devices—things. It’s a pre- or post-language world: a dark vision of labor practices, commodification and interconnected supply chains.
A selection of sculptural works displayed on racks accompanies the video installations, some of which are remnants from Rottenberg’s videos: a plastic pool snake, a potted palm and more colored strands of tinsel. A finger and a pair of lips poke out of the wall, while cranks and pedals encourage pointless human interaction. The objects move and rotate but produce nothing. These efforts to engage viewers in futile exercises come across as sophomoric. The sculptures feel lost, like discarded props from closed stage productions.
Rottenberg’s weird, supersaturated, labyrinthine videos, illustrating the recursive quality of matter as it progresses between inanimate and animate states, fare better. This is most apparent in the exhibition’s title piece, Spaghetti Blockchain (2019). Here, Rottenberg focuses on a hexagon-shaped kaleidoscopic instrument. Each time it rotates, it connects disparate worlds. Shots of the outside of the CERN Antimatter factory, home of the Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator (used to
explode the smallest particles in existence) — alternate with images of plowed potato fields. A female Tuvan throat singer in Siberia emitting a guttural hum is intercut with blue cotton candy. As the hexagon spins, a jellyroll cake is sliced, an egg sizzles as it fries, a balding man pokes his head out of a hole. The idea, of course, is to visualize the blockchain, which as we know from crypto lingo, is a decentralized system: a model and organization without hierarchy.
Funny, cerebral, and occasionally banal and bleak, Rottenberg’s sensorium-like visions resonate. Once you begin to see objects and humans as inescapably entangled, the shape of the world changes. Boundaries dissolve. The artificial no longer seems external. Nature no longer resides outside. The invisible is revealed. Everything becomes a portal to someplace else.
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Mika Rothenberg: “Spaghetti Blockchain” @ Contemporary Jewish Museum through October 22, 2023.
About the author: Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fire, and Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post, among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.