Today from our friends at BOMB Magazine, we bring you an excerpt from Judith Hudson’s interview with Mika Rottenberg. In keeping with our Summer Session theme of labor, the artist discusses multitasking, migrant workers, energy, and the value of sweat. This interview was originally published in the Autumn 2010 issue of BOMB.
Video-installation artist Mika Rottenberg creates mini-factories, farms, and tableaux, which produce products variously made by tremendously fat, tall, muscled, long-haired, or long-fingernailed women. Women, who in their own lives commodify their eccentricities, are, in Rottenberg’s films, featured as “bearers of production.” To make their merchandise, the protagonists have to pedal, squeeze, cry, sweat, massage, dig, push, burrow, morph, cross continents, and use more than a bit of alchemy. Every detail and orthodoxy is taken to its extremes, turned upside down. You smell the flowers and sweat; you hear the sounds of breathing, nails tapping, sweat sizzling, milk hitting tin; you feel the breezes, and the squeezing of flesh, its bursting out of constraints. Yet Rottenberg treats the superabundance with such normalcy it makes me laugh.
Judith Hudson: To me, imagination is the most private and revealing aspect of a person. It’s what attracts me to your work. You submerge people in your imagination. I feel as if you seduce the viewer with unconscious sympathies, like fetishism or caged energies.
Mika Rottenberg: Right, things that tap into everyone’s subconscious memory. We’re pretty similar in our cores, more or less. I have to tap deeper into this psychological vein, so then I can drag people with me. It’s not just visual; it’s energetic. It’s about trying to locate feeling that has no shape. The whole thing is meant to fail on some level because you can’t give shape to abstract emotions, sensations, memories, and smells.
JH: How do your ideas germinate? They seem to spin out exponentially, reminding me of James Joyce transforming the unconscious into art. You must feel things very deeply—but I sense that when you’re working, you have to be in complete control of your feelings, so you can organize all this chaos.
MR: “Spinning” is a really good metaphor. I start the process by finding the core—it can be a sound or a smell or a texture…
JH: You actually start with something that simple?
MR: Yeah, for me, even the smallest part of the work has these little tensions. So if I put a core detail in, say, the itch you feel in your nose when you are allergic to something, I then create a structure where you can throw in more details and spin those around. It starts from that feeling that doesn’t quite manifest. Then it becomes a search for what manifests this thing that can never quite be manifested. I want to create this structure to fence these abstract sensations in, to give them shape and materiality. For example, in doing yoga, you put yourself into this rigid structure to liberate yourself. Otherwise you’d just get lost.