Mika Rottenberg’s installation NoNoseKnows, showing now at the Venice Biennale, focuses on production, as much of her work does: in the video, we watch an assembly line of women making pearls. They turn hand cranks; they manipulate knitting needles; they partake of the despondent rigmarole that is factory life. Soon enough, though, the images lurch toward phantasm. Some of the women are dozing peacefully at their stations; some have their feet submerged in whole baskets of pearls; and their labor is directed from underground by a kind of Pinocchio-nosed queen bee, an exhausted, frazzled woman with a nasty cold. Then, as Randy Kennedy writes in the New York Times, comes the denouement:
the woman sneezes explosively, causing steaming plates of Chinese food and pasta to burst from her inflamed schnozz, which seems to provide the pearl workers’ sole nourishment; the process repeats, maybe endlessly.
“For more than a decade, Ms. Rottenberg’s work has been mostly about work, and about women doing it,” Kennedy says. “Her pieces often envision candy-colored, fictional factories, staffed by women of wildly varying sizes, colors, and body types, where real commodities are produced by absurd means.”
If any of this is ringing a distant bell, it might be because we featured Rottenberg in our Summer 2011 issue, where the painter Marilyn Minter similarly described her work as “a paean to workers and factory labor.” Minter taught Rottenberg for two years at the School of Visual Arts. Rottenberg, she writes,
began as a phenomenally talented painter, and when she switched to making video art, I thought, She’s trying to fit herself into the dialogue rather than doing what she’s good at … “You’ll have to convince me that you’re a video artist,” I remember informing her. Not long after, she started building the elaborate constructions featured in her videos and the equally impressive installations that house the monitors displaying her footage. Suddenly I saw that she was an exceptional video artist.
Mika’s art “is replete with metaphor and allegory,” Minter says:
Her actors are people she finds on the Internet who do one thing exceptionally well, whether it’s growing their hair to Rapunzel-esque lengths or making a living as fetish workers beloved for their corpulence. Mika’s art celebrates these actors and their work. Her protagonists transform their bodily excretions, via whimsical assembly-line processes, into consumable products. In one piece, red-lacquered fingernails become maraschino cherries. In another, a bodybuilder lets his sweat drip into a hot frying pan. If viewers find these scenarios repulsive, that’s not Mika’s intent—I feel pretty sure of it. She just has a clear, fresh, idiosyncratic vision of the world, and she’s faithfully carrying out that vision.
Below are excerpts from four of her works, including NoNoseKnows. You can see more video from Rottenberg’s gallery, Andrea Rosen, and click here to purchase a copy of Issue 211, which includes a portfolio of Rottenberg’s work alongside Laurel Nakadate’s.
Tropical Breeze, 2004.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.