“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 behind much of the work by Mika Rottenberg, whose 15-year career has helped to propel video art to new levels of sophistication. (Erin Patrick O'Connor,Sarah Hashemi,Ashleigh Joplin,Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

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.)

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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.”

A still from Rottenberg’s 2017 video installation “Cosmic Generator.” (Mika Rottenberg)

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.”

LEFT: A visitor takes a photo of Rottenberg’s “Lips (Study #3), 2016” in Paris in October 2016. (Francois Mori/Associated Press) RIGHT: A closeup of the video installation. (Mika Rottenberg/Photo by Aurélien Mole/Andrea Rosen Gallery)

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.

“She alters your synaptic connections. You have to rearrange how you put information together.”

Andrea Rosen, Rottenberg’s former gallerist

New York crystallized her interests and fueled her ambition. She is inspired by cinema (David Lynch is one director she cites) and by other contemporary artists, including Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney (“the way he combined sculpture and video, and did it in this mega, unapologetic way”). But New York itself has been perhaps the biggest influence: “The aesthetic of it, the way things are patched together. The interactions of people, the busyness, the diversity.”

Rottenberg’s films are constructed like an assembly line, or algorithm. One thing seems to lead inexorably to the next. “It’s like a game of constructing logic and then breaking it down,” she says, “an illusion of transparency and understanding when in fact it doesn’t really make sense.”

For Rottenberg, the way things work in the real world is similarly opaque. “It’s so hard to understand our world right now,” she says. “I think it was always hard. But I think maybe 100 years ago you could see, Okay, this is how power is. Now it’s just overwhelming. Maybe through art, with its skewed reflection, you can attempt to give shape to things in order to try to understand it or relate to it.”

Rosen, Rottenberg’s dealer until she stopped representing artists last year, got to know her way of working better than most. “I think she’s a truly great artist,” she says. “None of her decisions about how or why things are a certain way are indulgent. She is both resourceful and savvy at getting to what’s necessary in the making of a piece.”

A breakout moment

When Goldsmiths, the London art college, opened a center for contemporary art in a former Victorian bathhouse in September, the gallery chose Rottenberg for its inaugural exhibition. It was a breakout moment for Rottenberg in one of the art world’s global capitals. Inside the gallery — a warren of scuffed, boxy spaces perfectly suited to Rottenberg’s work — the curator, Sarah McCrory, told me that the first time she saw Rottenberg’s work it made her “really angry.” I asked why, and she paused before saying, “I have no idea. I think I hadn’t yet attuned myself to the feminist angle in Mika’s work.” Later, in any case, she came to love Rottenberg’s “ability to be seriously political but also funny and weird. That shouldn’t work!”

Clip from Mika Rottenberg's film,"Squeeze" (Mika Rottenberg)

The piece she saw was “Dough,” a claustrophobic yet visually lavish film suggesting affinities between expanding dough and outsized bodies. It stars Tall Kat, a 6-foot-9 woman who in real life “rents out her tallness,” explains Rottenberg, and Queen Raqui, a 600-pound woman who “makes a living from squashing people.”

Rottenberg finds Raqui beautiful. She has used her in several films. “She has so much pride in the way she carries herself, and it is very inspiring to me,” she told Christopher Bedford, the former director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, in an interview for an exhibit there. “She is a size-acceptance activist. People accuse me of basically hiring women’s bodies, but I don’t. These women own their own means of production.”

Goldsmiths has a long tradition of student activism. Rottenberg’s show there opened amid protests on behalf of the college’s cleaning staff, whose jobs were in jeopardy from outsourcing. The press preview was disrupted by blaring vuvuzelas and bedsheets turned into large signs asking: “Who keeps the cube white?”

The following night, the protesters’ numbers had multiplied. It was the grand opening, a celebration not only of Rottenberg but also of the new gallery, which had cost millions and been years in the planning. Guests had to cross a picket line, squeezing past signs showing black rats in silhouette and demanding “Justice for Cleaners.”

None of this had anything to do with Rottenberg — except that, of course, it did. Since her work is about hidden labor in a global economy, she could hardly stay above the fray. She issued a statement expressing “support and solidarity with the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign.” She respected, she wrote, the protesters’ decision to use the opening night of the gallery as a way to promote the issue and urged the college to stick with in-house cleaners. She hoped, she wrote in a formulation that might have doubled as a wall text accompanying her work, that the protest would “help make visible the hidden labor and fragments of vital energy and exploitation that are embedded in everything we consume and produce.”

Rottenberg in New York. (Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post)

Labor negotiations

Rottenberg has been embroiled in labor disputes of her own in the past. Filming “Cheese” in the summer of 2007, she found herself on a farm in Florida working with six women she had hired for their extremely long hair. There were also about 20 farm animals. It was extremely hot, and the women, says Rottenberg, “wanted to have time to wash their hair to make sure they looked good and not like witches.” But to wash and dry so much hair would have taken 24 hours, time Rottenberg could not afford.

“They formed a union against me and went on strike, and everything collapsed on the first day,” Rottenberg told Border Crossings magazine. The parties negotiated and “found solutions that made everyone happy,” Rottenberg tells me now. “Unions,” she adds, “are a powerful tool!” For the rest of the week, she told Border Crossings, the shoot was “an amazing experience. Part of the legal agreement coming out of the strike was that whenever I talk to the press, or give an interview, I have to say how beautiful and mesmerizing their hair is.”

“Maybe through art, with its skewed reflection, you can attempt to give shape to things in order to try to understand [our world] or relate to it.”

Mika Rottenberg

Rottenberg is often asked about her beliefs. She told Bedford that she likes that her work “gives space and a stage to women who don’t always obey gender and conventional beauty expectations. But my intention is to make an interesting artwork, not to serve a political agenda.”

Capitalism, she believes, has clearly gone haywire. “There’s something really wrong with the system.” Certainly, she says, it has had hugely positive effects. “It freed women and women’s bodies. It made a lot of people rich — and I don’t just mean the 1 percent. I benefit from it. But now, it’s just f----d up. You can argue different things about capitalism. But the fact that it’s destroying the ecosystem of our planet — you cannot spin that that’s a good thing.”

Our conversation is winding up. Glancing over at the sleeping hamster, I’m reminded that a lot of Rottenberg’s work shows women looking tired, yawning, falling asleep on the job. “Someone wrote about how the only thing capitalism hasn’t got to yet is your sleep,” she says. “That’s the only place you’re actually free — it’s the last frontier of freedom.” She laughs. “But I don’t know. You can also be dreaming about all the things you want to buy when you wake up.”

Sebastian Smee is an art critic for The Washington Post.