In the middle of Mika Rottenberg’s meandering show at Palais de Tokyo, Ponytail (Black) (2016), a long, mechanically flipping, raven-coloured lock of human hair, springs from a mysterious hole that pierces a wall at head height. While this view is about as racy as a horse’s tail swatting flies, the notion of a female jogger frantically bouncing in some secret room constructed behind it naturally comes to mind. Around the corner adjacent to the wall sculpture, the four rectangular windows of Ceiling Fan Composition #2 (2016) open onto the hitherto space. It is empty and split in half by a dropped ceiling, two spinning fans in the section above and two below. Too low and intricate for anybody to stand inside, this inaccessible installation makes the idea of an immured runner all the more twisted. She’d risk getting chopped by the motored blades.
Rottenberg’s surrealistic works abound with partitioned-off spaces, which accommodate absurd human tasks that spiral into uncanny chains of events. Indeed, the Argentine video artist’s characters – often played by people who do similar jobs in real life – contribute to the most ludicrous assembly lines, within which physical exertion almost never produces tangible goods, instead seeming to end in smoke. For example, the peephole of the video installation Fried Sweat (2008) lets prying viewers witness an evanescent grotesquery, staging a fiery trio’s unusual attempt to produce human steam. Next to a bodybuilder, whose dripping sweat boils over a hot frying pan, a martial artist breaks a thick pile of wooden boards bare-handed and a contortionist suddenly vanishes into thin air. Work-related accidents, the tragic vaporous conclusion of this video reminds us, happen in the realm of art too.
In the installation Seven (Sculpture Variant) (2011–16), realised in collaboration with Jon Kessler, the sweat of seven performers is collected inside a glass sauna, the latter heated by the pedalling of a stationary bicycle once a month during the show’s run. Next to the equipment, two monitors document the fantastic production of ‘chakra juice’, supposedly out of the performers’ perspiration. The first presents a mad scientist distilling the bodily essence, which is then sent to Botswana, where the members of a rural community – as portrayed in the second video – cautiously pour it into the arid ground of a desert. The Disneyesque cartoon spectacle of a splashy rainbow arising and two singing birds ensues.
The human body isn’t the only matter that deliquesces in Rottenberg’s bizarre aesthetics. Architecture melts too in the video Bowls Balls Souls Holes (2014), which orchestrates a liquefied snowball effect. Under a full moon, water from an air conditioner in a gloomy hotel room leaks through a crumbling ceiling tile onto a dozy woman sitting in a bingo hall, which awakens her abruptly. Frowning to signal her displeasure, she clenches her fists tight, gathers psychokinetic superpowers and triggers global warming. Glimpses of thawing sea ice superimpose over her angry face before she nods off again. During the exhibition, the three air-conditioning units of Ac Trio (2016) also drip onto burning stoves, next to which tiny houseplants are slowly doomed to wither right under the viewers’ noses.
In the video NoNoseKnows (2015), a blue-collar amazon doesn’t bother either watering the wilting plants decorating the interminable maze-like entryway of a factory, whereas once she reaches her office she is prompted to spray two feet curiously emerging from a basin. The pair belongs to one of many Chinese women sorting pearls on an assembly line below, while the former’s labour consists of inhaling pollen from bouquets to trigger an allergic reaction. Spasmodic sneezes eventually make her expel an entire menu of noodle dishes, which pile up on her desk.
Finally in the video Squeeze (2010), the conjoined effort of Mexican farmers, Indian pickers and Chinese masseuses produces a sculpture out of mashed-up lettuces, natural rubber and cosmetic tins. A shipping order, taped on a wall further into the exhibition, indicates that Rottenberg had this object consigned offshore, ‘to be stored in perpetuity’, thus protecting the real hard work that went into it from conceptual speculation. Isn’t art the most invaluable human production ?