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The World According to Mika Rottenberg: The Artist in Conversation

Rudy F. Weissenberg

Mika Rottenberg, Ponytails, 2014. hair, wood, acrylic tubing, mechanical system, nylon mono lament, ponytail holders, acrylic paint. Edition of 3 with 1AP. © Mika Rottenberg. Image courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer.

Mika Rottenberg explores small spaces through big ideas. Her ever expanding and elaborate practice presents a revised version of an atemporal reality that is just as political as it is outlandish and hilarious. Her precisely calibrated reading of culture channels Pedro Almodóvar and Jon Waters as much as Paul McCarthy and roller derby. She is the artistic extension of contemporary comediennes that can deliver mortal punches with a smile and levity that leaves one recuperating for days. Rottenberg’s exploration of pre-conceived ideas of the female body and its relationship to labor and consumption is just as critical about the system as the viewer that has normalized and internalized it. Giving agency to real-life characters in carefully crafted environments that demand attention and respect, her installations create all-encompassing events that demand attention and complete immersion. The Miami Rail spoke with Rottenberg in advance of her exhibition Mika Rottenberg on view at Miami’s Bass Museum of Art from December 7, 2017 through April 30, 2018.

Rudy Weissenberg: Let’s start with personal context. You were born in Argentina, but raised in Israel. Is this multi-geographic personality something that informs your work, or influenced you to become an artist?

Mika Rottenberg: Yes, my family moved from Poland to Argentina, and then from RW: Argentina to Israel, and I moved from Israel to New York in ’98. It’s funny, in recent years I acknowledge it more. The autobiographical part comes through the work, but it’s never something I felt like I need to explore in a conscious way. I always want the work to tell me what it’s about,
rather than me setting up a terrain for what it is about. But in recent years I’ve been thinking about this global movement, and I don’t think I feel attached, necessarily, to any one specific national identity.

RW: My family moved from Poland to Guatemala. Then I moved from Guatemala to the United States.

MR: Oh, then you know. Yeah, yeah, and I used to not think about it so much. I didn’t want to mythologize it. But it is an interesting shift, trying to suggest, “Oh, maybe that has to do with something in my work,” and my interest in globalization and our planet as my studio. I know that last part sounds a bit megalomanic …

RW: Not megalomaniac at all. You might not directly or consciously be thinking about it, but I think the idea of moving geographies is really what informs our experience.

MR: Yeah, exactly, and I think part of being exposed to different ways of thinking and also having the privilege of being able to move freely (more or less) across the at least part of the globe— it is definitely something that informs the departure point.

RW: The labor aspect of your work makes me wonder if your family moved to work on a kibbutz in Israel?

MR: Both of my parents grew up on a kibbutz. I didn’t, but I spent summers and lots of visits in my childhood, so this kind of socialist ideology and ideas about work and labor as a value is something I was always exposed too, and your body as your property or as an asset is something that interests me.

RW: I was introduced to your work during the Whitney Bienial in 2008 and I thought it was so fresh. I was also at Münster, Germany for Skulptuer Projekte this summer, and I remember getting to your project in an old store and just after walking in my first reaction was a smile. I don’t know how you feel about people thinking your work is funny. Not that it’s funny, but it’s funny. You know, it’s hilarious, your approach to it.

MR: Yeah. I think that’s super-important. Maybe it’s about making these more political-based topics a bit understated. It’s really hard, when you’re making art, to approach big topics while being a bit removed and in your studio. I think the humor seems more honest to me. Making work that’s accessible has become more and more interesting and important for me. It’s the biggest compliment when I’ve just met someone and they’re like,”Oh, my four-year-old loves your video and I keep having to tell her about MR: Right. Yeah, I think it’s a bit disrespectful to them to say that I’m exploiting the little taco men in the plate, and what happened in the tunnel, and all that.”

RW: That’s the power of the work. You remind me of British comediennes like Catherine Tate and Tracy Ullman. They take on personae that are outlandish and at the beginning you can just see the surface, how funny it is, but underneath it’s biting and political. Comedians are very serious people that are able to see things no one else can see, and find the humor in it.

MR: Yes, I think that’s the story of cultural power, to be able to expose complicated realities through humor, and that’s the big difference. I think it’s more hilarious, than funny. It’s more like, What the fuck? That’s the reaction I always like. We are living through such bizarre times. I don’t know how it was to live a hundred years ago, but I think more and more we have so much access to so much information, visual information, and the more we know, the less we feel like we have to have a grasp on it. So, for me, approaching it from a place of What the fuck? How do I position myself within these big systems, is interesting, and it is hilarious, and it is so bizarre…

RW: Outlandish. And yet, I think we’re living through times that feel like augmented reality. Everyone has very strong opinions, and everyone thinks they’re really informed politically, socially, but I think a lot of times people don’t really know what they’re talking about.

MR: Yes, but then you hear liberals (including myself) say “Oh, it’s horrible, it’s horrible. Capitalism is horrible, and we’ve got to do this or that…” But I would like to say… we’re living in an through capitalism. We’re in the 10% of the world that enjoys freedom and opportunities. If you’re taking your dogs to the dentist and you’re buying bottled water from New Zealand or something, and you’re bitching about capitalism, where at the same time women in India are working in a meat factory and are finally earning some wages where they can support their family, and yet it is an industry that is also polluting… so we can never get it right! I mean, it’s just so complex and it’s just very hard not to have a cartoon opinion about stuff.

RW:  And perhaps have the maturity to understand that unless you understand the complexity, you could be manipulted to act or think in a certain way, without enough information on what you’re doing. In Latin America, where I come from, it happens all the time.

MR: Right, and I think one of the problems in hyper-capitalism is trying to package everything, even trying to package a resistance movement into products. Everything is being monetized and divided into units, and then being sold back to you. I think that, in a way, it’s like a spiritual problem.

RW: Have you met the people in your videos? Is the internet your main source of research?

MR: Yeah Yeah. I’m not sure if you call it research or inspiration. When I started making this kind of work it was the late 2000s, it was really when Google started, so the idea of searching for different people online and then having the option to cast these women that offer their body for sale for $400 an hour, and then owning your own means of production, and being able to, for no money at all, put their information online and own their own bodies and own their own means of production. To explore one part of themselves that is dysfunctional and make it into a functional thing …That a woman who’s very, very tall and can sell out their tallness, or someone who’s very large can sell their size, that transformation is almost like alchemy. That transformation is interesting and how the Internet facilitated that, and specifically, I think back then it was just like, “Whoa, the Internet.” I lived through that.

RW: It was one of the few points where women took the lead, like John Waters and Devine. I don’t think Devine was a freak, per se, she was just, for me, a super-artistic person, and I’d rather hang out with her then probably anyone else. Are you ever accused of exploiting the outlandish characters that you’ve worked with?

MR: Right, yeah. I think it’s a bit disrespected of them to say that I’m exploiting them, as if they didn’t have a say in it. It’s with their consent. Early on, it was very important that they advertise themselves. The internet is heaven for exhibitionists and voyeurists. So, they want to be seen and I want to look, and they already commodify part of their body. They already package it and I consume it, but I consume it in a way that’s also critical…

RW: It formalized the marketplace, right?

MR: Right, yes. But, also, it’s a form of empowerment, because, before, maybe you had to hire an agency. So, you had to go to the agent and the agent has to like you, and you have to sell yourself. This is more democratic because you just put yourself out there. You don’t need anything. You need a computer and you need access to everyone. So I think that’s different. There’s more opportunity for things to go viral like that, just because they’re crowd pleasers, or they’re interesting.

RW: And the control that people have over their own lives and careers.

MR: We don’t know how it’s going to end up. Maybe the only kind of clear criticism of capitalism is environmental, because the other things are so hard to pin down. You trust Google and the media to tell you a constant story about what’s going on, they like to make people scared… they have us all hooked on our phones watching events unfold around the world live, with great pictures… it’s all fiction now! But it’s real!

RW: I am excited to see your work go to Miami and take part in the cultural environment there.

MR: I really want that. And I want to extend it. I think there’s such a need for art. There’s such a spiritual poverty in this country, and I think that art is a vital answer. People really want to relate to art, and I think a lot of times it’s inaccessible and…

RW: Intimidating perhaps?

MR: Yeah, intimidating. I don’t understand stuff half the time, and I’m an artist. So if I don’t understand it, what about someone who doesn’t have a master’s degree in art? I mean, how do you make smart, accessible work that is supposedly socially concerned and all that, but nobody can really access it besides the people that made it, or a small group of people that read through it?

RW: I don’t mean to use hyperbole, but I do think that art changes lives, in the vision of people, of what they can do, or how they can save the world.

MR: Right. Art empowers the individual. An artist can introduce ideas and create things on a very small scale that influence culture and the way people think. I like to think about culture as biology. The art ecosystem as a culture of germs. Little organic things growing and mutating. Visual culture grows that way and not through the art market.

Rudy F. Weissenberg fancies himself a cultural advocate and instigator. He is currently studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design working towards a Masters degree in Design Studies with an emphasis on Art, Design and Public Domain. He is a product of generations of migration and cross-pollination.