Mika Rottenberg’s Critique of Contemporary Object Culture

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the striking things about spending time in China, and pretty much anywhere in the world, is seeing how “Made in China” plays out in our material realities. All the little things we buy that look simple, whether a toy fish, an inflatable palm tree, or a plastic flower, come from somewhere thanks to a series of interlocking, complex chains and sequences that enable production, assembly, packaging, distribution, and sales. 

One such place is Yiwu Market, China’s largest wholesale market and, by extension, one of the world’s largest. Follow that market’s products around the globe and you might land in Calexico, California, and Mexicali, Mexico, two border towns where those very same goods from China are sold.

These objects are the jumping-off point for “Cosmic Generator,” a video work by Mika Rottenberg that leaps back and forth between Yiwu, Mexicali, and Calexico. In one surreal moment, a woman at a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali opens up a platter to find three young White men in tacos wiggling around. Another platter holds four older White men in suits on a bed of cilantro. The video cuts to one of them crawling along the tunnel that connects the border towns. It’s hard to know what’s more surreal — the men in taco suits or the fact that low-cost plastic objects can move seamlessly across borders and oceans, while people cannot.

The video is part of Mika Rottenberg: Spaghetti Blockchain at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), the first US museum survey of the artist’s work on the West Coast. The themes of interconnection, surprise, and objects we might dismiss as cheap junk are critical to understanding her sculptural works in this show, which take the form of Rube Goldberg-like machines, with biting commentary on contemporary object culture. As the exhibition text notes, “Rottenberg often uses the term ‘social surrealism’ to describe her visionary approach to art making, implying that her mode of creating and embracing the bizarre serves to reveal just how disorienting aspects of contemporary reality often are.”

Artist M Eifler interacts with Mika Rottenberg’s “#33 With Bamboo and Bicycle” (2020)

The entranceway to the main exhibition involves nearly empty racks of products one might find at a budget store, and viewers must cross curtains of tinsel, after which Rottenberg’s funhouse-like world takes over. Some of the more delightful objects include mini Rube Goldberg-type machines. Sit down with “#33 With Bamboo and Bicycle” and start turning the pedals, and its odd arrangement of a ponytail, a plastic cup with lid and straw, and bamboo start dancing and wiggling in turn. Crank the handle for “#11 With Cabbage and Ponytail” and the eponymous objects jump and respond.

These seemingly absurd objects come to life in “NoNoseKnows,” a video piece where Chinese women in Zhejiang work in freshwater pearl production chains. One young person starts turning a crank that feeds the growth of flowers far above her, which a tall White woman enjoys as her nose grows and grows. When she sneezes, a new plate of pasta emerges.

It’s a disservice to Rottenberg’s conceptual frameworks to directly identify these mechanical sculptures with Rube Goldberg Machines, which perform simple actions in complicated, charismatic ways, highlighting the brilliance of the machine itself and the poetry of the task. I prefer to think of these as Mika Rottenberg Machines — just as humorous and strange. In construction, they are relatively simple and straightforward to understand, but they highlight the complexity of the story of globalization and inequality. Therein lies poetry as well.

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Mika Rottenberg, “Cosmic Generator (Loaded #3)” (2017), single-channel video installation, 26:36 min.
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Mika Rottenberg, “#11 With Cabbage and Ponytail” (2020)
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Mika Rottenberg, “NoNoseKnows” (2015), single-channel video installation, 21:58 min.
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Mika Rottenberg, “Lips (Study #3)” (2016/19), single-channel video installation (looping), 1:28 min.

Mika Rottenberg: Spaghetti Blockchain continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco, California) through October 22. The exhibition was curated by CJM Senior Curator Heidi Rabben.

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