Mika Rottenberg at SFMOMA

During an admittingly rushed Friday evening in 2008, I attended the Whitney Museum during a pay-what-you-wish night. It was during the Biennial and every floor of the museum was packed with an abundance of people and art. As I made it through each floor, digesting as much art as possible in 3 hours, one artist and artwork stayed on my mind: Mika Rottenberg’s video installation, Cheese. Since that evening, I have followed her beautifully complex projects, faithfully reading about her recent exhibitions at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery. So it was no surprise that when I first heard that her new video, Squeeze, was to debut at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I made it a point to stop by immediately and see what the artist has been up to over the past two years.

Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze (still), 2010; Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery/Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery; photo: Henry Prince

In this new video, Rottenberg continues her investigation into social and labor-based inequalities through a fragmented narrative. The grotesquely seductive video equally binds and separates the concept of labor with gender, class, and race, seamlessly merging the real with the hyper-fictional. Interlocking environments slide in and out of place. Exaggerated sounds of cutting, slicing and crunching divide and define the separate worlds, and rich, fleshy color pull them all back together. Similar to her past work, Squeeze maintains an all woman cast of characters played by non-actors, where the physical characteristics of Rottenberg’s women parallel their occupation within the awkwardly constructed environment. Women working in a rubber plant in India, mining the trees for raw substance, interact with an all female work force at a lettuce farm in Arizona. These two real worlds collide with the fictional factory constructed in the artist’s studio, serving as the main link between all of the spaces in constant flux. Walls move, floors drop, and characters blindly connect to the factory to create a new hybrid consumer product turned art-object, which is composed of blush that is squeezed from the skin of a woman in the factory, rubber, and decomposing lettuce.

Through a beautifully non-linear story, Rottenberg’s use of the absurd confronts the seriousness of her content, mesmerizing the viewer by slowly releasing a delicate flow of information through color, sound and rhythm. Each element quietly underscores the disconnect between the consumer and the production process innate to mass commerce. What results is a world which mirrors her role as a woman creating an art object, and our daily lives of utilizing a variety of products, many of which are produced through the work of people who are socially, politically, and racially removed from the consumer. Yet, while the work is far from generous, the artist subtly reminds us that we can never really separate ourselves from the lives of others no matter how distant or disconnected we would like for them to be.

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