Palais de Tokyo
13, avenue du Président Wilson, 75 116 Paris
June 23 – September 11, 2016
I didn’t anticipate feeling depressed via Mika Rottenberg. I had been peripherally aware of her work, generally spoken of as being quirky, darkly humorous, and informed by Rube Goldberg-like structures and absurdist systems. But the words “defeated” or “depressed”? Those were words I never thought I’d say while seeing her work. Her solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo is filled with fluorescent color and knee-jerk giggles, but the overall effect of the exhibition, as a whole, is a crushing one.
The exhibition’s portal is a rotating wall: one side bears a mandala made from used chewing gum and their bunched foil wrappers, and the other holds an electronic numbers board and ball machine used to play bingo. Both of these elements figure heavily into her central video work Bowls Balls Souls Holes (2014). Threaded through a loose narrative of a lonely, isolated woman whose prime task is pulling balls and announcing numbers at a bingo hall, are cascading frames of dropped clothespins that make their way (in the aforementioned Goldberg method) downwards through a series of brightly-colored boxes towards a man who promptly attaches each successive clothespin to the skin on his face. As he reaches a terminus where there is no spare skin to pinch, intermittent frames of a full moon (that serves as the “third eye” of a woman moving between sleep and silent expressions of rage in the bingo hall, as well as the sole light source above an abandoned motel), an arctic landscape, and the incessant drip from an air conditioning unit interrupt his activity. Finally, he spins frantically in circles (circles and round objects being the operative shape throughout the film) until he “pops” and disappears. Various objects taken from the film are arranged throughout the exhibition space as empty “dioramas” of the action just witnessed. Good God what a dreary, hopeless existence we have.
Just ahead, though, comes the real punch. An opening in another wall reveals large, white straw bags filled to capacity with cultured pearls. A baker’s rack holds still more bags. A small table adjacent to it holds hundreds of strands of the shimmering spheres, complete with figurines of rabbits fashioned entirely from them. Further on, a screening room shows a film called NoNoseKnows (2015). The action switches between three main visual thematics: bubbles floating in contained rooms (some filled with nitrogen or dry ice), a woman dressed in workwear whose task seems to involve sniffing one bouquet of flowers after another and her subsequent sneezing miraculously producing ready-to-eat plates of noodles, and the traditional process of pearl farming and sorting carried out by an army of overworked women. The sheer tedium of the working woman in her lonely office, coupled with the painstaking tasks of the pearl farmers, add to the overwhelming sense of “we’re SO doomed as a species.”
A fun little side-show nearby, Ceiling Fan Composition #2 (2016), is made from a sheet of drywall with four horizontal cut-outs, each one showing a rotating ceiling fan lit from above with four different fluorescent shades of light. Yet, this did nothing to ease the weight of what Rottenberg brings to the forefront. While she revels in surreal, disconnected actions and events that could theoretically function as escapist moments, the after-effects of consuming her work are so heavy that it would take either drugs or death to clear the haze. Maybe that’s what she’s getting at: we’re so leadened by life as a tedious, weighted thing in and of itself, and perhaps (as the late, great Robin Williams noted in the 1993 film Hook) the truth is that “death is the only adventure.”
Rather than plunging myself into further doom and gloom (augmented after watching another heavy-handed film by young French filmmaker Clément Cogitore), I quickly fled the museum and went for a strident Parisian espresso, instead.