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Mika Rottenberg, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate. Image courtesy the artist and Goldsmiths CCA

I vividly remember the first work by Mika Rottenberg that I encountered—albeit only online. A surreal six-channel film, built into a wooden barn, which followed sisters with extraordinarily long hair—so long that it cascaded past their hips, knees, and to their feet—in the process of making cheese. In an arduous ritual, the sisters milk the goats but they also repeatedly wash and brush their hair, leading the viewer unable to discern whether it is the milk or the hair that makes the cheese, as if spinning straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin. I’ve wanted to see Rottenberg’s work in the flesh ever since, and—even though there was no Cheese—her large survey show at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (their inaugural exhibition) did not disappoint, with new and existing work to be found throughout the sprawling three-level, seven-gallery space, even making use of the ceilings and stairwells.

The opening of Goldsmiths CCA—a former listed Victorian bathhouse, converted and designed by 2015 Turner Prize winners Assemble, with over 700m² of exhibition space—was protested by the Goldsmiths Justice for Cleaners group, demanding improved working conditions for the university cleaners, and to bring staffing in-house rather than outsourcing with the company ISS, who have extended working hours and slashed pay. Rottenberg penned a statement of solidarity supporting the campaign, which can be read in full in their blog, with the hope that it would provide “visibility for the campaign as well as the debate around the connection between art and activism, ethics and aesthetics and the hypocrisies and contradictions that are part of our contemporary reality.” [1]

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Mika Rottenberg, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate. Image courtesy the artist and Goldsmiths CCA

The often female protagonists in Rottenberg’s projects are typically characterised as trapped (financially, psychically, and physically; she prefers to use deliberately cramped, lo-fi environments) in a labour economy, their bodies a microcosm for production, hyper-capitalism, and globalisation: issues often suppressed and hidden within society. Rottenberg works with women who earn money through their extreme skills and/or bodies, always paying them the same service rate. For ‘Mary’s Cherries’ (2004), she hired professional fantasy wrestlers. The work is a single channel video, housed within a carpeted box with a cheap white stucco interior: a diligent replica of the set in the film. The women are sweaty, stifled and cramped, squeezed into 1950s diner dresses, pedalling on exercise bikes, working to produce items. A fan spins, hamburgers arrive on pulleys, and the glossy red acrylic false nails grow at record speed under UV nail lamps, like plants in a greenhouse, soon to be transformed into said cherries.

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Mika Rottenberg, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate. Image courtesy the artist and Goldsmiths CCA

Rottenberg’s visual language runs on this principle of cause and effect. In the guide for the exhibition, she refers to “systems with their own subjective logic, precarious systems that are constantly on the verge of collapsing, both logically and physically but somehow are able to hold themselves together through the notion of perpetual movement and growth, until they also pop…” The work is lurid, sometimes grotesque, and very funny. In ‘Sneeze’ (2012), we see drab, suited male office types, their only remarkable features being huge, swollen and snotty prosthetic noses. Quickly, their chests starts to heave, and then the bare feet with painted toes curl, nose wrinkles, they sneeze—accchhoooo—and on the desk will suddenly land a rabbit, a steak, or a light bulb. It makes no sense, but it’s a form of logic, a chain reaction. 

‘NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant)’ (2015) follows a similar assembly line, oscillating between the banal and the absurd. We see a female worker shucking pearls from huge oysters, and a group of a cultivators who meticulously sort and count them. One pedals a wheel, which in turn powers a fan in another room that wafts flower pollen up the extended, prosthetic nose of woman suffering from hayfever—accchhoooo, again—and plates of noodle dishes are produced. The materiality of these gloopy and overfilling plates, stacked into towers, are reminiscent of the stacks of large oyster shells, highlighting how entangled, and fairly disgusting, modes of production and consumption are. The wider urban landscape outside of the working environment mirrors this dystopia of excess and low hygiene standards, with rubbish bags piled high, plastic bottles bobbing along the waterfront, and grey smog and wind. 

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Mika Rottenberg, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate. Image courtesy the artist and Goldsmiths CCA

Overblown noses and exaggerated sneezes drip throughout Rottenberg’s practice, a repeated motif used along with fingernails and bouffant hair. The latter two are transformed into mechanical systems—the sinister witch-like ‘Finger’ and the glossy swish of ‘Ponytail (Orange #1)’ (both 2018)—pulsating out of holes in the basement walls, and elucidating Rottenberg’s ability cross mediums and deftly collapse the lines between film, sculpture, kinetics, and architectural installation. ‘Frying Pans’ (2018) has been installed in the converted iron-lined Victorian water tank on the first floor, with multiple stove pans hissing and smoking on loop, cast in a moody purple light, as if in an uncanny relay race, or experimental spitting orchestra.

Both the hybrid film/installation works ‘Cosmic Generator (Variant 4)’ (2017-18) and ‘Bowls Balls Souls Holes (Bingo variant)’ (2014) highlight Rottenberg’s fascination with ‘invisible’ phenomena, such as quantum entanglement. The notions of inside and the outside, public and private, documentary and fiction, are always traversed equally. In ‘Bowls Balls Souls Holes’—which stars the Guinness world record holder Mr Stretch, in addition to the regulars who frequent the Harlem bingo hall that the film is shot in—particular sequences of numbers open up portals to alternate realities. Similarly, the viewers enter the space to watch this film by passing through a large, rotating announcement board. Worlds collide. 

In the ‘Cosmic Generator’ film, Rottenberg links Calexico, California, Mexicali, Mexico, and a surreal plastic commodities market in Yiwu, China, through an oesophageal tunnel, which is accessed through a vending trolley, pushed by a woman along the Mexico/US border wall. In a bizarre ‘when art meets life’ moment, this work was actually shot as Trump took the presidency, commenced his trade war with China, and threatened his ‘build the wall’ campaign against Mexico. Perhaps an overt example, but when considered tandem with Rottenberg’s support of the cleaners’ campaign (another art meets life reality check), this coincidence identifies the incisive nature of Rottenberg’s practice, finely tuned to politics and the realities of exploitative labour. It coalesces into further evidence that we are living subjects within the highly-saturated horror of rampant neoliberalism, unbridled greed, and fantasies of power. Can anyone be blamed for wanting to have a laugh? Accchhoooo! 

[1] Mika Rottenberg’s Statement of Support on Justice for Cleaners at Goldsmiths’ blog


Philomena Epps is an independent writer and art critic living in London. She is also the founding editor and publisher of Orlando.