Mika Rottenberg’s wry artistic commentary on hyper-capitalism is on display in Montreal

Mika Rottenberg (Credit: Miro Kuzmanovic)

Prior to the pandemic few had likely given much thought to the supply chain—let alone its disruption.

Not so Israeli artist Mika Rottenberg who has been fascinated by how stuff is made, monetized and marketed ever since college, when she read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

“I was struck by its poetics,” said Rottenberg at a talk before the May 21 opening of her exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC).

The exhibit, Rottenberg’s first solo show in Quebec, continues until Oct. 10.

Co-produced with Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art, it features her three most recent videos, installed amid sculptural elements within an industrial-like space.

Rottenberg’s “social surrealism,” as she calls it, blends documentation and performance to create eye-popping commentaries on mass production, materialism and globalization all with a sense of humour verging on the absurd.

She wants viewers to think about the goods they consume, particularly the cheap labour, often women’s, that went into them through her mesmerizing kaleidoscope of bizarrely juxtaposed images.

“I like to blur the lines between fact and fiction,” said Rottenberg, who aims to evince “curiosity and confusion… to seduce and make (people) uncomfortable at the same time.”

Exhibition curator Lesley Johnstone said Rottenberg’s works “take us on a journey to remote regions and into the bowels of the Earth. They surprise and amaze us, but they also make us think about the state of the world.”

The three videos on exhibit are pre-pandemic, suggesting Rottenberg’s prescience about the movement of merchandise around the globe.

Filmed in Zhejiang Province, China, NoNoseKnows (2015) depicts two cultured pearl factories where work is carried out under deplorable conditions. The fictional big blonde boss Bunny Glamazon, an actor symbolizing the West, has a nose that grows Pinocchio-like and produces a plate of pasta when she sneezes.

In Cosmic Generator (2017), Rottenberg draws an ironic analogy between migration and import, making the point that the West facilitates the entry of merchandise but restricts human beings.

A clerk appears to be buried amid cheap merchandise in a shop in China, a scene from Cosmic Generator by Mika Rottenberg. (MAC photo)

She filmed the network of tunnels between Mexicali, Mexico and Calexico, California through which goods freely move at a time when U.S. president Donald Trump was talking about building a wall on the border. The scene jumps to a market in Yiwu, China, overfilled with plastic tchotchkes where bored female clerks can barely stay awake.

Inspired by emerging cryptocurrency, Spaghetti Blockchain (2019) opens in the Siberian steppes to the sounds of a female Indigenous throat singer. As her voice resonates across the vast landscape, Rottenberg makes a jarring contrast with technology.

The woman’s voice blends into the electronic hum of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, which Rottenberg was able to film during her residency at CERN near Geneva.

If this was not enough disconnect, Rottenberg then taps into the craze for ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, said to reduce stress and induce a meditative state. Hands cut through a gelatinous roll and fry it, knead dough, and play with beads—all in garish colours. The pleasure these images at first give viewers soon turns to uneasiness.

Fascinated by our craving for the tactile, Rottenberg said she finds “your body kind of responds, not so much through your thinking brain; it’s more like a physical kind of experience of a visual image.”

Rottenberg’s background may explain her alertness to dislocation. She was born in 1976 in Buenos Aires, her grandparents having settled in Argentina from Poland just before the Second World War. When she was a year old, her parents left for Israel to escape the “Dirty War” unleashed by the military junta.

A graduate of Beit Berl College’s HaMidrasha School of Art, Rottenberg continued her education in New York, earning an MFA from Columbia University in 2004. Today she is based in upstate New York where she constructs the sets for her videos whose documentary components are shot on location.

In 2019 she won Germany’s prestigious Kurt Schwitters Prize, a biennial award recognizing significant contribution to contemporary art. The jury praised her “ingenious visual narratives (that) illuminate the interconnected relationship between economies, geographic areas, forms of works and added value.”

Rottenberg emphasized that her art installations are as sustainable as possible, with waste reduced through reusing or recycling materials, right down to the screws holding up the gypsum walls.

In September, MAC will present the premiere of Remote, Rottenberg’s first feature film co-produced with MAC. It was made during the pandemic with Rottenberg’s longtime cinematographer Mahyad Tousi. Set in the near future, five women in different parts of the world stay connected virtually, not through Zoom as Rottenberg and Tousi did during lockdowns, but via mysterious portals in their homes.

What they have in common is an addiction to a digital South Korean television show about dog grooming. Remote will be in the spirit of Rottenberg’s tongue-in-cheek allegories about interconnectedness, which technology made possible, if imperfectly, during the isolation imposed by COVID.

MAC is still temporarily located in Place Ville-Marie, lower level, while its building next door to Place des Arts continues to undergo major renovation.