The New York-based Argentine/Israeli Mika Rottenberg’s video labyrinth at the Goldsmiths CCA is an immersive multimedia and multiperceptual allegory of the effect that the globalised economy has on the human body. On screens strategically placed along the gallery’s three floors, the viewer is exposed to a series of loopy, sweaty and claustrophobic videos which transform the global into a cage. The way her videos are both thematically and aesthetically interrelated and are also architecturally and sculpturally presented is reminiscent of the work of Joan Jonas, for example. ‘Mary’s Cherries’ – a 2004 video where female workers occupy metisculously crafted sets, working to produce items, passing matter from stage to stage- is housed in a stucco lined cramped box that mirrors the space the women work in. The viewer approaches ‘BallsBowlsSoulsHoles’ -a very interesting video from 2014 that follows a tacky woman who takes care of her nails by night, has no visible social life and works announcing the numbers at a bingo- by passing a rotating announcement board. Through a pearl shop, the viewer approaches ‘NoNoseKnows’ -a 2015 video following a woman going back and forth from her office who after turning a fan belt powered in another space that wafts flower pollen up her nose, she professionally and hayfeverishly sneezes to create various noodle dishes while a subworld of oriental female labourers artificially create oysters from where they extract the pearls that welcome the viewer in the screening room entrance. It is through a tunnel that one enters ‘Cosmic Generator’ -a 2017 video where she traces the lines of connection between the border wall that runs through Calexico, California and Meicali, Mexico. These locations are connected by an oesophageal tunnel, along which the camera moves. The tunnel surfaces in the vending trolley of a woman who walks alongside the Mexico-US border. Around the gallery works like Ponytail (2018) and Frying Pans (2018) mark a switch towards objectual installations which are both uncanny and confusing and reminiscent of a very argentine (and french) type of art. Kinetic art.
The fact that the Argentine Embassy in London had decided to endorse this show is, on one hand ironic and on the other, makes perfect sense. It is ironic because yesterday Argentina has received the biggest loan package ever from the International Monetary Fund, aimed at shoring up the country’s ailing finances: a whopping $52 bn that will be disbursed over the next three years and is, in part, the result of the effect of the neoliberal policies of open markets and globalisation unleashed by the current government. Having said this, the decision of the Argentine government to back Rottenberg’s exhibition might (I am sure, unconsciously) been that her art is an actualisation of the so called ‘social sadistic’ art that during the sixties used reality and the viewer as artistic material. In ‘To Commit a Happening’ (1966), for example, Oscar Masotta hired 20 pensioners and asked them to dress as the people from the class immediately beneath them would, in order to then make them stand in front of an upper middle class audience to be sprayed with a fire extinguisher, exposed to deafening sounds and blinded with a strong white light. Thus, Masotta made evident the economic and psychological distance that separate participants from viewers in an art world context.
This inspired Oscar Bony for his performance ‘The Working Class Family’ (1968) which was a controversial inclusion in the Experiencias 68 exhibition at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. Bony used the exhibition budget to pay a workingclass family to sit on a plinth in the gallery for eight hours a day while recorded sounds of their home life played in the background. That the family’s income earner, Luis Ricardo Rodriguez, a die-caster, was earning twice what he would have made at his job highlighted how low wages were. This was produced during a time of increasing radicalization in the face of devastating economic policies. This is relevant for Mika Rottenberg’s work because in films such as ‘Mary’s Cherries’ (2004) the female workers are not actors but professional ‘fantasy wrestlers’ who hire their services out online. Rottenberg refers to the non actors who star in her films as ‘talents’ -either extreme skills or bodies, to earn money. Unlike Bony, she pays them the same wager as they would command for their online services, and abases the structures of her films on the women themselves rather than fitting them into an existing narrative. This piece of information is extremely relevant because Rottenberg creates working situations that are restrained in claustrophobic spaces, sweating or bored, mirroring the real working conditions inherent to globalised capitalism that, as a matter of fact, she profits from when hiring those ‘pathetic’ people ‘in need’. By refusing to use actors she exposes this ‘low bodies’ to the view of an ‘informed (therefore high)’ viewer in a context saturated by the surplus value (of money and prestige) that the art world commanded by art galleries such as Andrea Rosen NY create. If she had shown the microphysics of this sort of value creation power, he work would be a masterpiece but instead she looks aside by both manipulating the prestige associated with the art world while conceptually depicting her subjects in a social surrealist way without giving them any chance of redemption. She is portraying a doomed world that she is happy to help building and the only one who ends up winning is the artist… for being… creative.
Back in 1967, the critics said that the political message of Bony’s ‘The Working Class Family’ would have been more effective if shown in a union. In 2018, Rottemberg’s account of today’s precarised labour force happens in a context of generalised precarisation where all of us are subjected to the same system. One of the problems of this kind of art is that it preaches to a convert. Political art as selfrighteous and moralising has as its only goal to congratulate its audience for what they already know and assure them that they are good people with the right ethical values unlike the majority (like the wrestlers, in the video) who are victims of the market manipulation (that, in fact, has Rottenberg and Rosen in charge). But you cannot blame a commercial gallerist and an ambitious trendy artist for trying to be… well… rich and prestigious. What is increasingly worrying is the way an academic institution like Goldsmiths and centre left newspaper like The Guardian present the work as ‘highlighting the complex absurdities of our globalised economy’ when that very absurdities lie in the very fabric of the production of these videos only to be left unexplored. J A T