New Museum of Contemporary Art
235 Bowery at Prince St.
Through September 15, $12-$18
Allegorical depictions of consumerism, the means of production, and the global reach of capitalism are at the center of Mika Rottenberg’s artistic concerns, and they are on full display in her first solo New York museum show, the delightful “Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces,” which continues at the New Museum through September 15. The presentation consists of three major video installations along with playful sculptures and an additional short film that immerse visitors in the Argentina-born, Israel-raised, New York–based Rottenberg’s unique visual and physical world. Her videos have an almost visceral and tactile appeal due to her inventive use of sound and imagery, while the uncanny sculptures that accompany them enhance the overall experience, bringing together humanity, nature, materiality, and technology. The title of the show was inspired by Richard P. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher; Feynman, a theoretical physicist, writes in the introduction, “Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.” Feynman might have been speaking to physics students, but it also reads like Rottenberg explaining her work to her audience.
Visitors get a hint of what’s to come as soon as they get off the elevator, where they are greeted by AC and Plant, an air conditioner sticking out of a temporary wall, a slow drip from which waters a potted plant on the floor. The three main videos burst with bright colors, make absurdist connections, and depict the monotony of everyday work. You enter the new Spaghetti Blockchain through a hallway of ceiling fans seen through slits in the walls; the twenty-one-minute video travels from Siberia, where Tuvan throat singer Choduraa Tumat vocalizes in traditional dress in a vast mountain landscape, to a potato farm in Maine shot from above, to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. A rotating hexagonal kaleidoscopic structure at the antimatter factory turns to reveal a knife slicing a jelly roll, a man getting his bald spot sprayed, sizzling candy melting, and other odd actions that serve as ASMR cues.
You have to walk through a tunnel to get to 2017’s Cosmic Generator (Tunnel Variant), a twenty-seven-minute video that connects Chinese restaurants in Mexicali to a wholesale market in Yiwu, China, through a network of abandoned underground tunnels, creating seemingly arbitrary relationships that comment on border towns, immigration, and cheap Chinese labor and plastic goods. (Be sure to ride the large elevator to get a cool bonus.) You exit the room through a floor-to-ceiling sparkling rainbow curtain, like the ones on display at the Yiwu market, leading you to the three-minute short Sneeze, in which barefoot men in suits sit at a table, sneezing out rabbits, lightbulbs, and steak, referencing Thomas Edison’s 1894 five-second Fred Ott’s Sneeze. That room and the next contain bags of (fake) pearls and bunnies made of the gems, leading into 2015’s NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant), linking a pearl factory in China, where women first infect oysters so they will produce pearls, then harvest them and separate them, with fetishist Bunny Glamazon, who sniffs flowers in a small room and sneezes out plates of noodles. Meanwhile, a pair of upside-down feet stick out of a bucket of cultured pearls.
The videos are supplemented by a room of kinetic sculptures that are directly or indirectly related, physical manifestations of what we have seen and/or experienced onscreen, blurring the lines between fact and fiction: AC and Plant is joined by Frying Pans (duo), a pair of pans on stovetops into which drops of water fall from above and sizzle, emanating smoke and sharp sounds; Finger is a digit sticking out of a wall, slowly turning, the cosmos visible on its long nail; Lips (Study #3) is a pair of sultry red lips on a wall, a miniature video playing inside, with smoke occasionally wafting out; and Ponytail (Orange) is made of real hair, flopping out of a hole in a wall. You’re not going to make sense out of every detail, so don’t try; just enjoy the pure fun of it all, even as it takes on aspects of labor with a Marxist bent. Rottenberg’s (Bowls Balls Souls Holes, Seven with Jon Kessler) work can be extremely funny and surreal, but it also is deceptively smart and clever as it deals with the apparatus of making and using, manufacturing and consuming, that so dominates modern society.
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