“I t’s just really beautiful,” says Mika Rottenberg. “I always love to look at it.”
We are sitting at a table in her modest Brooklyn apartment on a hot afternoon in early October. Beads of sweat garland my neck as two fans circulate the humid air. A hamster sleeps in a little crib behind Rottenberg, dreaming of treadmills, perhaps, or of the cradling hands of Rottenberg’s 6-year-old daughter, who will soon arrive home from school. But right now, we are talking about ponytails.
“I guess the mechanical ponytail is funny to me because it’s taking this free, hair-flowing-in-the-wind, accidental moment of beauty, and then trying to repeat it over and over again,” says the 42-year-old artist, responding to my question about “Ponytail (Orange #1),” a piece she made this year. Installed in a gallery in London — part of her first major show there — it’s simply a ponytail emerging from a wall, flicking convulsively up and down. The point is “to commodify it, so that it becomes annoying, absurd and stupid,” says Rottenberg.
Commodification and absurdity are, in fact, behind much of the work created by this diminutive — she’s only 5-foot-2 — artist who, after a solidly successful 15-year career, is now poised to take the art world by storm. Rottenberg has taken video art — a medium often prone to excruciating longueurs, poor editing and cheap production — to new levels of sophistication. Her films, which can be anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour long, are taut, visually seductive, intricately composed and suspenseful. They feature large-bodied women performing mundane work in tight, decrepit spaces. Chutes, shafts and tunnels connect them with lettuce farms in Arizona, an underground pearl-harvesting farm, or Chinese restaurants on the U.S.-Mexican border.
You could describe them as allegories about globalism and labor — particularly women’s labor. But they’re allegories that don’t quite add up. Increasingly, they’re about the mysteries of the universe itself. Rottenberg screens them inside elaborate room-scaled installations, often with kinetic sculptures nearby. (Apart from the flicking ponytail, she has installed air conditioners that drip into plants, and water droplets that fall from the ceiling onto hot electric frying pans, making a hissing sound — tsss! — as they turn into gas.)
Nothing looks quite the same — not the lettuce in your fridge, not the nail salon down the street, not your pet hamster’s cage — after an encounter with Rottenberg’s work. “She alters your synaptic connections,” says Rottenberg’s former gallerist, Andrea Rosen. “You have to rearrange how you put information together.”
Rottenberg’s films have been featured in the Whitney Biennial , the Venice Biennale , and in museums and galleries worldwide. Her unique aesthetic continues to gain international attention: This year she has had solo shows in Miami; London; Bologna, Italy; and Bregenz, Austria. But she has yet to have a major survey in the United States. That will change in June, when New York’s New Museum will present a survey of her recent work. Margot Norton, the show’s curator, says that Rottenberg “has a keen sensitivity to the often-overlooked aspects that underlie the seemingly familiar.” She “opens our eyes,” Norton says, “to the peculiar and remarkable qualities of the everyday.”
Around the world
Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Tel Aviv, Rottenberg has a warm, open manner. Springy ringlets sprout from her scalp. She has a thoughtful demeanor but breaks regularly into a mischievous grin.
In addition to her small Brooklyn apartment, she has a studio in Upstate New York, but she prefers to film on sets she constructs in rented studios and in far-flung locations. She has filmed in Iceland, on the border with Mexico and in the world’s largest wholesale market, in Yiwu, China. She was on a potato farm in Maine in early October, and before that — a first for her — she directed a shoot among Tuvan throat singers in Siberia remotely: Without leaving home, she issued instructions to a Russian film crew.
All this footage feeds into films that can be beautiful one minute and repulsive the next, but are always mesmerizing. “Squeeze,” for example, imagines an elaborate process by which a sculpture is made from globally sourced lettuce, latex and cosmetic blusher. “Bowls Balls Souls Holes” is set in a bingo hall in Harlem and imagines links between luck, the laws of physics and climate change. In the multichannel video installation “Cheese,” six sisters milk cows and make cheese with a machine powered by their long, incessantly groomed hair.
For her latest work, she wants to return to the CERN laboratory on the border between France and Switzerland, where she had a residency over the summer. Scientists there are trying to solve the mysteries of the universe with the help of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. The lab, she says, “was amazing: it was so much like visiting a studio. You go into these giant hangars and they’re full of computer parts and wires and people working. The amount of cables that place has, it’s really crazy. They’re making these things and they’re not really sure what they are.”
For a while, Rottenberg wasn’t sure if there was anything at CERN she wanted to film. “But then I found this place, the antimatter factory,” she says, speaking with a slight accent, “and I thought, ‘This is it! I’ve got to film there.’ ” Antimatter consists of “antiparticles” — particles that have an opposite charge and properties to the particles that make up ordinary matter. It may not actually exist in our physical reality. But, says Rottenberg, “they’re making it! And in three years they’re going to know if it obeys gravity or not. That’s going to be this huge discovery.”
More and more, Rottenberg is interested in points of overlap between economic production and what science teaches us about the nature, the spirit, of matter itself. Just as Marx saw objects as embodying the labor that went into them, so stuff is not really stuff: It’s relationships — between elementary particles, energy, electromagnetic fields and more. “When we actually look at matter it’s amazing,” she marvels. “There’s no such thing as a still object. There’s literally kinetic forces and spirit and things constantly moving in it. There are no solid objects, it’s all just relationships.”
The illusion of transparency
Rottenberg’s father, Enrique Rottenberg, was a businessman who turned to film production. Rottenberg remembers being allowed on movie sets as a child. “I loved it,” she says. “The energy. They filmed at night, and that was amazing for me — everyone really focused and making this thing. The production of the illusion, more than the film itself, was what really interested me.”
Rottenberg’s grandparents escaped from Poland just before Hitler’s invasion. “They got a visa to Argentina just a few weeks before,” she tells me. “Their parents and siblings and everybody else died. They were settling into life in Argentina when they got the news: Everybody gone. That, I think, was really hard.”
Her family moved to Israel in 1977, the year after she was born. She attended art school in Tel Aviv, completing her master of fine arts degree at Columbia University in New York. She became interested in video almost by default. “I could never really paint,” she says.