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I peer down the barrel of a lime green, hexagonal tube that is not unlike the fleshy insides of a ripe kiwi. The guttural humming of a singer fills the dimmed room and a panel slides away to reveal a pair of rouged lips—the source of the humming. A Tuvan throat singer, dressed in traditional folk garments, sways and sings amidst the gorgeous, barren steppes of Siberia. I watch as a cotton candy like substance sizzles and crackles and caramelizes as it melts into puddles of crimson, blue, purple, and green. A hexagonal structure rotates counterclockwise and then clockwise, thudding. Manicured hands use a butcher’s knife to slice loaves of gelatin-like substance that squelches and plops, both grotesque and erotic. Complex structures of uncooked spaghetti noodles and marshmallows are ignited by disembodied hands wielding lighters and then succinctly crushed beneath the heel of a mechanical arm. A potato harvester forcibly separates the soil-stained tubers from their weedy stems. Computer memory banks blink furiously, as if transmitting Morse code, and display their wiry, neatly-organized guts.

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Mika Rottenberg. Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Spaghetti Blockchain (2019), the absurdly and yet aptly titled new work by Argentinian artist Mika Rottenberg, is the centerpiece of the exhibition Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces, which was first organized and presented by the New Museum in New York City before it traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The work is surreal and dreamlike, a cacophonous deluge of color, sound, and texture that leaves me unmoored as a viewer like thinking you have reached the bottom of a staircase only to find another step.

Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces is a much-needed palette cleanser after the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s overzealous and, frankly, overpromoted exhibition Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech.” Devoted to prominent American fashion designer Virgil Abloh, the exhibition was organized by the MCA’s James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling. Darling boldly claimed that the show would be one of the museum’s most popular exhibitions, potentially topping the record-breaking attendance numbers for the museum’s 2016 exhibition Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg and the 2014 exhibition David Bowie Is. However, despite a monumental marketing campaign, an impressive roster of programming, timed-ticket entry, new museum hours on Mondays, and an extension of the show, the attendance numbers for “Figures of Speech” fell short of the museum’s expectations.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum opened “Church & State,” a pop-up store featuring a retrospective of best-selling Off-White product and new, exclusive collections inspired by “Figures of Speech.” Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, also launched a Louis Vuitton pop-up store in Chicago’s West Loop the opening weekend of the exhibition. As Nick Davis, an analyst at an investment bank in Chicago, said with anemic excitement, “I think what Virgil is doing is very rare. [The exhibition is a] full circle moment. Being able to buy both Pyrex and Louis Vuitton in the same weekend was just iconic to me.”It’s no surprise that the hype surrounding “Figures of Speech” felt choreographed, less focused on artistic merit, and indicative of a culture obsessed with endless consumption as throngs of visitors lined up in the museum’s galleries to empty their wallets for a pair of sneakers.

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Mika Rottenberg. Cosmic Generator (Tunnel Variant), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Mika Rottenberg’s work, however, is the complete antithesis of this clearly capitalist endeavor by Virgil Abloh and the MCA. She references Marx’s concept of “dead labour,” effectively capital or the surplus of production outside of what is necessary, as one of the many entry points into Spaghetti Blockchain and—even more evidently—into her work NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant), 2015.

NoNoseKnows emerged from Rottenberg’s interest in cultured pearls and immerses viewers in the bleak pearl facilities of Zhuji, China, documenting the skilled women workers as they force open live mussels with a caliper-like device to begin the work of seeding them with pearls. A presumably Western overseer at the factory is played by one of the artist’s regular performers Bunny Glamazon, a 6-foot-4 fetish performer. We watch as she sits in a room above the production, smelling bouquets of flowers as one of the workers below turns a wheel, which powers a fan in the cramped office. The overseer moisturizes her hands. She sneezes, expelling different noodle-based dishes, which she adds to a teetering pile of unappealing cuisine.

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Mika Rottenberg. NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Rottenberg reads Marx’s Das Kapital as poetry, which is to say, unlike the majority of us. She admires the way he writes about the spinning of yarn and measuring the value literally by the amount of human life it requires to produce. Through the documentary footage of AngePerle Factory, NoNoseKnows immerses viewers inside the invasive and brutal production of cultured pearls. This process yields only a handful of pearls out of hundreds of thousands that will be of a quality high enough to sell to jewelers. The mortality rate for oysters as workers forcefully introduce grafts of mantle tissue from other oysters is nearly 40-70%. After about two years, the oyster will have coated this irritant grafted tissue with multiple layers of nacre, also known as mother of pearl. It would appear that Rottenberg has offered us an abbreviated measurement of the labor required to produce these illustrious, cultured pearls. 

This footage is paralleled with the rote actions of the overseer as her allergies suggest a tenuous connection between herself and the oysters. She alludes to sneezing as similar to orgasm, referencing Linda William’s Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “Frenzy of the Visible” to suggest that pleasure comes from knowledge of the body, dancing along the fine line separating desire from something repulsive. Rottenberg also focuses on the involuntary bodily act in her work Sneeze (2012), where a business man sneezes out bunnies and bloodied steaks in rapid succession.

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Mika Rottenberg. NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The moment of orgasm in NoNoseKnows produces the plates of Asian cuisine from Bunny Glamazon’s Pinnochio-like nose. The fan continues to turn. Beach ball-sized bubbles filled with smoke burst in various rooms. Bunny Glamazon gently mists a pair of feet rising out of a plastic bucket of pearls. The feet, which appear to be connected to a worker asleep beside other women furiously sorting pearls, flex. Another worker hacks apart dinner plate-sized oysters using a large stone, scraping the pearls free from the pink flesh.

Dutch curator Ann Demeester has described Rottenberg’s work as “contemporary fables in which both the moral point and the animal characters have been left out.” Yet, NoNoseKnows has a clear, implicit message: Western consumers remain unaware of the vast and unimaginable network of labor that produces their commodities, particularly as that labor shifts to women of color. If we actually comprehended the insanity of how things are made and consumed, people would likely behave differently. In a 2010 interview for BOMB Magazine, when asked if she is inspired by fairy tales, mythology, or folklore, Rottenberg responds, “I can’t say I’m influenced by anything except life, really. I see a lot of magic in so many mundane moments.”

Spaghetti Blockchain is anything but mundane. Blurring the line between sculpture, video and installation, the exhibition design for Easypieces creates a cinematic experience for visitors as they enter the show through a sculptural recreation of a pearl market stall, encounter kinetic sculptures such as Finger (2018) and Ponytail (2016), peer inside the walls to watch the deliciously erotic video work Lips (Study #3) (2016/19), and walk through a low-ceiling tunnel to find Cosmic Generator (Tunnel Variant) (2017). By disorienting the viewer through immersive, sensorial work, Rottenberg is able to manipulate them with ease.

I anxiously watch as a hand massages mint green slime, plunging into the buoyant mass. I imagine my own hand submerged in the slime-like substance. Rottenberg sheepishly admits that the use of slime was inspired by her young daughter’s obsession with slime videos. Without warning, the hexagonal structure twists again and the video cuts to a view of the expansive banks of computer servers that power the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern Antimatter Factory in France.

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Mika Rottenberg. Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Often, the most surreal element of Rottenberg’s work is a simple reality. The Large Hadron Collider is designed to locate the Higgs boson, theoretically the smallest and most elementary particle in existence. The collider is the world’s largest machine and cost $4.75 billion to construct. Rottenberg laughs that the researchers at the Cern Antimatter Factory have these incredible resources and “aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for.” She absurdly places the Large Hadron Collider alongside a Spudnik artificial intelligence-powered potato harvester as it plucks vegetables from the ground. The humming drone of the Tuvan throat singer returns as countless of the spaghetti blockchain constructions are crushed one after the other. Just as it began, the video ends with us peering down into the hexagonal structure.  

Unlike NoNoseKnows, Spaghetti Blockchain is not a moral treatise and makes no effort to make its intentions clear. I find myself dumbfounded by the work again and again and again, despite having watched it repeatedly throughout the process of writing this article. The best I can offer, in the words of the artist herself, is that maybe it’s time we all “quit [art] and do something real.”  

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Mika Rottenberg. Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Info

Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces is organized by Margot Norton, curator at the New Museum, New York, and is Rottenberg’s first solo museum exhibition. Bana Khattan, Barjeel Global Fellow co-organized the MCA’s presentation of the exhibition. Margot Norton was recently selected, along with Jamillah James of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to curate the fifth edition of the New Museum Triennial. Norton started her career as an assistant curator at the New Museum and has organized exhibitions such as Diedrick Brackens: Darling Divided, Nathaniel Mellors: Progressive Rocks, and Carmen Argote: As Above, So Below. 

EventMika Rottenberg: Easypieces
DateOctober 2, 2019 - March 8, 2020
VenueMCA Chicago
Address220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
HoursTuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm
TEL312-280-2660
E-mailinfo@mcachicago.org
URL Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces