If the exchange of ideas and goods had a sound, what would it be? Maybe it’s an egg sizzling violently on a hot grill. Or a pair of hands delivering puffs of pigment to a bald man’s head with an old-fashioned spray bottle. Or a hand whipping a trembling tower of turquoise jelly.
At least that is the case with Mika Rottenberg’s sublimely bizarre video installations.
Born in Argentina, raised in Israel, and now based in New York, the artist has a knack for taking the invisible systems that govern our lives—ideological, economic, and cultural—and illustrating them in ways you can practically taste. You don’t watch a Mika Rottenberg video so much as you absorb it through all your senses.
You can expect those senses to be stimulated to the max at a couple of shows currently running in Los Angeles. At Hauser & Wirth, Rottenberg has a solo exhibition, now in its last two weeks, featuring a series of video and installation pieces that appeared in the traveling exhibition”easy pieces”, which originated at the New Museum in New York in 2019. In addition, this Saturday the artist presents the premiere in the United States of her first feature film, “Remote”, made in collaboration with filmmaker Mahyad Tousi, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
This bizarre image, which was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, centers on a woman named Unoaku (played by the magnetic Okwui Okpokwasili) who comes into contact with a curious group of peers online. Unoaku is confined to her house for reasons that have not been revealed. All we know is that he calls into work through a futuristic headset and bangs a pot on his window every afternoon, much in the same way that people in cities like New York banged pots in honor of the workers at health early in the pandemic. In the evenings, she settles in to watch her favorite interactive show, hosted by a Korean dog groomer, a show that begins to reveal strange things about Unoaku’s place in the world.
“Remote” blends bright, deeply saturated color palettes – mossy green rugs, lush floral wallpaper, a fuzzy red lounger – with the unsettling sense that different truths lie beneath playful surfaces.
In that way, the film evokes many of the themes of Rottenberg’s earlier video work.
In 2019’s 18-minute “Spaghetti Blockchain,” on view at Hauser & Wirth, she juxtaposes a bewildering array of images: A Tuvan throat singer drives into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, passing industrial halls filled with of computer servers. , which give way to a hand scraping a block of wet clay with a small bristle brush, which gives way to a harvester pulling potatoes from the ground.
If everything seems totally random, it’s not. The piece is linked to its own internal logic. There are synergies of pattern and sound: the grooves in the wet mud allude to the potato field; the vibrating notes of the throat singer are repeated in the hum of computer processors.
In key scenes, the viewer is confronted with a strange, hexagon-shaped mechanical structure that emits a satisfying click with each rotation: each cell reveals a strange scene within, like the fried egg and the moving jelly. All the cells seem to resonate with each other, as well as with other video streams, which continuously rotate around themselves.
Everything is related to everything else; there is no beginning, no end, no central node. It is as if Rottenberg had converted the concept of a distributed network into analog format and filmed it.
And he did so while nodding to the exaggerated aesthetics of social media: there are colors that pop and sounds that work their way to the depths of your lizard brain. In an interview with art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson for the “Easy Parts CatalogRottenberg described herself as obsessed with the category of videos considered “more satisfying” on YouTube, which often depict compulsively observable acts of painting, squashing, painting, scattering, picking, and cutting.
“I really wanted to create my own ASMR factory,” he said.
Another work, titled “Cosmic Generator”, from 2017, comes closer to home. For 26 minutes, Rottenberg takes us between the US-Mexico border cities of Calexico and Mexicali, and a famous wholesale market in Yiwu, China. These settlements are connected by trade, but also by history: Mexicali is where many of the Chinese immigrants who helped build California’s railroads ended up in the early 20th century after being pushed out by anti-Asian legislation. In the USA.
Rottenberg approaches this story in a unique way. Images of Mexicali’s Chinese restaurants, with their extravagant architecture and royal names — Imperial Garden, Royal Greeting from China — give way to scenes in Yiwu. A maneki-neko mechanical cat, always waving from a crowded restaurant counter, leads to a stall packed with similar cats at the Chinese wholesaler. Businessmen in suits and a guy in a taco suit crawl back and forth through an underground tunnel. Food and capital penetrate the border; folks, not so much.
Rottenberg is serious about following globalization, but he is not serious about it. “Cosmic Generator” is a strange journey, which begins when the viewer enters the Hauser & Wirth gallery through a tunnel designed by the artist.
Ultimately, your images are much more than images. they are sensations. The water gurgles. The light bulbs are broken. The viewer is plunged into rabbit holes that mysteriously appear under the dome of a special dish in a Chinese restaurant. In an artist talk for the Magasin III Museum of Contemporary Art in Stockholm in 2013, Rottenberg said that when choosing or creating the environments he shot, he wanted the viewer to “think about how it would feel to touch or lick it”.
That’s not too far from the base. Although I would say that instead of licking the work, it is more than if I had licked you. And after that, things are never the same.
Where: Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. Third St., Los Angeles
When: Until October 2
Remote: A Film by Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi
Where: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Premieres September 24 at 4 pm (RSVP required); after which the film will be shown three times a day until October 1. 30, no RSVP needed