Fingernails, ponytails, maraschino cherries, and gigantic breasts are among the tokens of Mika Rottenberg’s tawdry world. The artists recent survey show at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art is uniquely penetrative, her uncanny exaggerations of our physical world leaving you double-guessing the absurdities of your own everyday. Rottenberg’s video pieces and installations sit perfectly within the newly re-worked Victorian bathhouse; the flashy pigments of her work countered by the modest brickwork of the building interior. The artist’s use of colour is totally unrestrained; every video characterised by a rainbow of gross, garish hues of blues, reds and pinks. Female protagonists dominate her universe, often performing repetitive and seemingly pointless tasks in pointlessly confined spaces. In Mary’s Cherries (2004), a group of women work to transform fingernail cuttings into maraschino cherries – a production process that is of low-key crudity. The women themselves are of striking presence, either busty or brawny, and heavily made-up. Physical appearance is accentuated by their outfits of low-cut pinafores from which breasts threaten to spill out of, adding an element of outrageous sexuality to an otherwise spartan space of manufacture.
Much of Rottenberg’s work offers a critique of working practices under neoliberalism, in which profit is king and inefficiency is scorned. Clammy and overworked, our buxom beauties surf the waves of a gig economy, and its joys of low-wages and unstable employment. In NoNoseKnows (2015), we are provided with a more comprehensive vision of this absurd reality. A line of production workers – again all of them female – harvest pearls from oysters, a delicate task of all fingers and thumbs. One woman turns a wheel that powers a fan, fanning pollen in the face of someone with a bad case of hay fever. With every sneeze, a plate of sweaty noodles is produced, each plate stacked on top of the other in some vulgar, doughy mass. In this imaginary, food is prevalent. Passed from subject to subject, it is a thing to be processed or played with, yet not enjoyed. It occupies an unsettling space of in-between; delicious yet foul, edible yet uneatable. The physicality and palpability of her narratives are hammered home; viewers are submerged in the sights and sounds of food, drink and bodies, inclusive of the gargles and grinds of open mouths.
In the film Cosmic Generator (2017), viewers are shifted between two locales; the US/Mexico border-town of Calexico, and a goods market in Yiwu, China. Crossing from one space to another is provided by an underground passage; a socketed tunnel of steel tracks and florescent lights. Pint-sized men in suits crawl along it, moving from one end to another as if in perpetual cycle. Other men are dressed as tacos, of course. They end up on top of salads, uneaten but clean forgotten. Some linger in waiting rooms, in a similar state of continual uncertainty. Its a space that differs from the chintz and trash of the outlets in Yiwu. Overfilled with plastic wares, its shopkeepers drown in brightly coloured product, giving way to truly unforgettable stills. Its products are emphatically global; its is the same polyester effects that can now be found anywhere and everywhere. Here Rottenberg draws parallels with our own dismal reality. Objects circulate with very little resistance, yet people do not have the same privileges – a truth epitomised by the US-Mexico border and its enduring migrant crisis. Rottenberg’s fictive processes reflect all too well the absurd practices of our unceasingly capitalist reality. Much like her protagonists we too remain in a state of continual circulation; destined only to re- iterate that which we know, yet increasingly empty of rationale or meaning.