whitehot | Mika Rottenberg @ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Still: Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010 (work in progress)
Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery/Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery; photo: Henry Prince
Mika Rottenberg: New Work
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
Mika Rottenberg debuted her latest video work, Squeeze, at SFMOMA this summer. Situating the piece in another elaborate and deliberately absurd factory-esque, quasi-architectural construction, she continues exploring women and their bodies in relation to the mechanisms of production. This time, she conflates the labor market with the art market. In keeping with our persistent global delusions of limitless commodity production, Squeeze has no overtly discernible beginning or end, but cycles more-or-less seamlessly. While it doesn't much matter at what point you begin watching, until you've sat all the way through at least one loop you won't have any real understanding of how the various elements of the tightly segmented, perpetually moving factory, relate. It is, in fact, more a gigantic machine than a factory: rooms shuttle back and forth, expanding and contracting, continuously shifting in relation to one another and the lands being harvested outside. The ultimate aim is producing a cube that, rather than pure, white and grand, is small, heterogeneous, and wobbly. Three materials are required for this ostensibly valuable product: rubber, lettuce and blush. The lettuce and rubber are 'imported', the blush is made on-site (more on this in a moment). The gelatinous block is thematically embedded in the art world via a photograph displayed outside the video gallery: Mary Boone presents the 'sculpture' to the viewer with an expression that riffs on an emperor's-new-clothes brand of satisfaction. Her immaculately professional presentation, in comparison to that of the women featured in the film, also clearly demarcates the consumer from the producer.
Rottenberg's factory-machine both collapses and emphasises the global nature of production. It exists in an utterly non-real space, physically connected to vastly disparate parts of the world. Every point in the absurd production process is driven by a different genre of woman or women and there is a sharp racial division of labor. The rubber is harvested by South Indian workers (in India), the lettuce, by Mexican workers in Arizona - both these materials are fed directly into the factory. In a curious sub-mechanism, a group of Asian women inside the factory are able to massage the Indian and Mexican workers' arms via magical holes in the ground. A group of relatively slight, nondescript Caucasian woman chop the lettuce and rubber. A prone redhead with a frizzy mane is shunted back and forth, fulfilling an inexplicable role. The factory manager is a somewhat tired-looking, buxom bottle-blond, and the raw energy that drives the entire operation is generated by the psychic powers of a sumptuously large African-American woman. The third ingredient, blush, is produced by squeezing another large, blond woman between padded walls. Post-squeeze, she flicks her cheeks, releasing sparkly pink flakes that drift down to become little, round makeup disks. This particular exercise in its-a-small-world compartementalisation and juxtaposition, while on the one hand working to repudiate the borders it acknowledges by pointing out congruities in international circumstances, also deadens any potential for collective agency that might result from the correspondence. The majority of the women featured are hopelessly mechanised. They seem to have no potential for psychological life beyond the process. Whether working or being massaged they are impassive, expressing neither pain nor pleasure. There is an inherent critique of the international industrial process in this dehumanisation. There is also, perhaps, a questionable lack of attention to individual's experience of the real-world version of manual labour... but this, too, could remind us of how consistently neglectful we are while we enjoy super-affordable goods.
The body is presented and explored in various ways, and there is a notable hierarchy within the intricate structures of Squeeze. Earlier pieces like Cheese, Dough and Tropical Breeze focussed on extreme bodies with features such as floor-length hair or massive corporeal volume. Rottenberg often finds her actors via their elaborate online personas. In Squeeze, the factory manager is played by Bunny Glamazon, a fetish professional from Indiana. The large psychic character is played by Trixxter Bombshell, who makes a living sitting on people in a specific fetish known as squashing. But here, too, emotional detachment confounds potential agency. Despite their intense physical presence in the work, neither is overly animated personally. At most, Bunny seems vaguely disgruntled as the office heats up and cools off. Trixxie exists primarily in deep, somnambulistic meditation, periodically flicking her eyes open to generate power (indicated by glowing pinpoints of light around her and an electric hum.) And yet, in a queen bee(s) and drones dichotomy, there is still a marked contrast between these two figures, who are central to the factory's functioning, and the women with 'normal' bodies who are presented as flat stereotypes and relegated to cogs in the machinery. The bodily production of the psychic energy and magical blush are further iterations of Rottenberg's characters using themselves as sites of a commodifiable process. There seems to be no suggestion that the women do not own their bodies, and therefore, in Marxist terms, the means of production. But, again, they don't seem to be garnering any satisfaction from their productivity. Squeeze also features disembodied parts. A row of bare bums sticks through holes in the wall behind the masseuses' heads. They are periodically misted with water as if they were produce in a grocery store, but though they can't help but draw the viewer's attention, they are fairly benign - as far from sexual as bare bums can be. On the other hand, one of the most lively characters in the entire piece is a tongue sticking though the wall in the manager's office. It could be seen, through its wiggles and antics, to crave - or demand - the water Bunny periodically squirts it with. The tounge is really the only site of active desire in the whole film. Aside from it, to varying degrees, neutral acceptance of monotonous repetition appears to be the order of the day, rather than any yearning, empowerment or fulfillment.
So how does is this related to the art world? Primarily, as mentioned, via Mary Boone's photograph. In a familiar critique, the cube produced is an art object because the elite dealer presents it as such. The art world metaphor is thus grafted onto the the video. While the photograph does add dimensions for thought, it is a somewhat didactic technique and possibly points to an absence in the content of the video itself, in terms of dealing with the particular issues of the art world. Although in the first paragraph I noted a distinction between consumer and producer, what Rottenberg's scenario really points out is a stark cultural differentiation between producer and creator. Factories produce products, artists create art. While Warhol inaugurated the factory, he also, as much as any other, emblazoned the notion that the spark of creative genius resides in the artist. And, unless we are to read the Rottenberg's piece strictly autobiographically, what is most conspicuously absent in this representation is an artist. In Squeeze, a conglomerate of seemingly disinterested women produce a blobby cube of what would otherwise be detritus. In the hands of the dealer, it becomes an art object. The dealer effects the transformation, becomes, in essence, the creator - and the artist is negated. But although she is not represented in the narrative, we know Rottenberg is the driving force behind the cube, effecting an inherently discursive analysis. It is a paradoxical critique. If Squeeze is successful in criticising the culture and systems in which it is situated, in de-robing 'art' to reveal a vapid 'product' that is absurdly wasteful of international resources, the validity of its comment only serves to reinforce its own social value... thus negating the critique. However, Squeeze can't be reduced to a simple logical equation that can be validated or invalidated. It's too weird for that. While not necessarily offering any solutions, it reflects the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of our global cultures and economies, presenting them to us in such a way that we might, for a few moments, really question some of their structures.