I usually leave things until the last possible moment, so I finally saw the Mika Rottenberg exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary yesterday before it became history, which it is now. The brochure advertising events at the gallery between 5 May and 1 July begins by describing Rottenberg's work as 'seriously political art that is preposterously funny', which I suppose is a good way to sum it up.
Rottenberg, a woman born in Argentina who now lives in New York City and Spain, has trawled the internet to find websites of unusual women making a living online: they may be obese men-squashers like Raqui, giants like Bunny Glamazon, or have extra-long hair like Leona, for instance. Rottenberg makes videos of these women, putting them in mechanical 'work' situations with strange contraptions that resemble Heath Robinson inventions. There is a parody here which blends Marx's commodity fetishism and Freud's sexual fetichism, but there is also a very serious comment being made about the objectificaton of women by their labour.
Rottenberg is also preoccupied by extensions of the body. She's reluctant to name particular influences, preferring to say, for instance, that she's more interested in the source of fairy tales than the resultant tales themselves. In a brief interview uploaded to YouTube, she states (probably with a mixture of seriousness and facetiousness) that a lot of her inspiration comes from a laundromat in Harlem which has amazing stains on the ceiling.
This was Rottenberg's first solo exhibition in the UK, and included her most well-known videos. Sneeze is atypical in that the only person in this very short film is male, but the fact that he has a Cyrano de Bergerac nose and sneezes rabbits and light bulbs gives a good indication of the kind of thing to expect in these often surreal videos.
Mary's Cherries (2004) shows a woman factory worker on a stationary bicycle that operates a light that enhances her red fingernails, which are cut off, mixed with thick liquidy substance, then pummelled to produce cherries. I missed a few of the other details – I'm hopeless enough at figuring out how real gadgets work.
In Dough (2005–06) a woman makes herself cry by smelling flowers and the tears fall onto a mass of dough, making it rise, and small lumps of it are eventually packed into transparent plastic containers.
I think the main inspiration behind Cheese (2008) is the fairy tale Rapunzel, although the extremely long-haired 19th century celebrities The Sutherland Sisters are another point of reference. In this video, long-haired young women milk goats and produce cheese: obviously, both milk and hair are extensions of the body.
There were several more installations and I found the general effect intriguing but fascinating. The other exhibition – cartoons by James Gillray (1757–1815) – oddly complemented Rottenberg's in its surreal content, although (unsurprisingly, I suppose) I found it fell a little flat after the video installations.
The link below is to a startlingly obsessive webpage about The Sutherland Sisters and their famous hair – at Rapunzel's Delight.com.
The Sutherland Sisters