Exhibition: Mika Rottenberg

James Jacobs looks at the first major UK exhibition of Mika Rottenberg’s ‘arresting and comically disturbing video works’…


Video still from 'Squeeze' (2010) © Nicole Klagsbrum/Andrea Rosen Gallery


Is capitalism – is consumerism – all that it’s cracked up to be? That’s the question I asked myself after visiting a new exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery.

What I was struck by in the Mika Rottenberg exhibition was how we in the materialized West never really appreciate that there is a whole underclass that produce – and get rid of – the products that we take for granted.

Rottenberg uses the medium of the moving image – film. However, these are not films to eat popcorn to. She draws her inspiration from the “poetry” of Marxism.

People use their vitality in order to make products…every product contains part of their lives….I like the idea of measuring something not by it’s ‘use value’ but by the processes that were invested in its making – the amount of ‘life’ that was put into it.

One of the films in the exhibition, Cheese (2007), is a haunting, evocative piece loosely based on the Grimm’s fairytale of Rapunzel and also the seven Sutherland Sisters, who travelled around America selling their hair growth products. These women milk goats whilst tending to their astonishingly long hair and wearing large, cumbersome dresses in the process. These women are expected to be both beasts of burden and objects of beauty.


Still from ‘Cheese’, 2007 © Nicole Klagsbrum/Andrea Rosen Gallery


Apparently ‘The Sutherland sisters could have been said to have ‘milked’ their long hair as they made millions selling their baldness cure’,  and even now, every time we watch an advert for a grooming product on television we are assaulted by ‘good looking’ individuals who tell us that by using their product we will automatically become a ‘better’ people.

Other pieces in the exhibition highlight how sexuality is used to sell products that are often not all they seem to be. In Mary’s Cherries (2004), women in bright uniforms create maraschino cherries from red acrylic fingernails. The production line used to create this only highlights the absurdity of women literally using their bodies to create products to be sold on as a delicacy.

However, the most bizarre, and certainly the most piercing work [see main image] in the exhibition is Squeeze (2010). Mexican women are working on a Californian lettuce farm. However, underneath this large scale, production line farm, is another world: a subterranean, grimy world.

A group of Chinese women reach from underground portals to rub and clean the Mexicans’ hands. Meanwhile, detritus from the world above is crushed and pounded down to create an enormous square that’s to become a fictitious ‘artwork’.

Another woman in this subterranean warren is manufacturing a magical blusher from her pink cheeks, then later she is compressed between moving walls. Elsewhere in the burrow a giant woman rotates in chair endless. What does all this mean?

“The driving force of capitalism is fiction” Rottenberg says.

It thrives on a form of storytelling that inflates the value of objects…In shooting the ‘documentary’ I wanted to get out of my own world, creating a direct portal for the real world. But it is not an attempt to make my work more realistic. It is maybe an attempt to show that reality is as bizarre as my own fiction.

Rottenberg highlights the throwaway culture of today. All the products we use have been produced by somebody, and yet it’s not often that we appreciate that fact. So next time you buy something, stop, and think…


James Jacobs left university wanting to become the next George Orwell, though frankly he’ll settle with being Janet Street Porter. His interests include International Development, Constitutional Affairs and the Arts. He keeps a blog: CultureArtNews, and you can find him on Twitter @jameswjacobs