Fetishizing the Visual: An interview with Mika Rottenberg
Parallels to gainful employment and productive labour aren’t what spring immediately to mind when you watch Mika Rottenberg’s videos, but there is a sure recognition that the players–who are all women–are industrious and that work itself is the outcome of their efforts. For Rottenberg, it starts with work, the ideas firming and taking shape when she begins building the sets that are a prime example of jury-rigging and the makeshift, taken to the level of art. Rough-cut boards, ramps, gates and corrals that seem barely able to support or contain the six longhaired women and assorted collective of farm animals make up the set for the video Cheese. Sunlight filters through the slats and catches the long white shifts the women wear, the orange feathers on the rooster contemplating a rose, the cascades and coils of the long, long hair that is the obsession of each woman, the camera and the artist alike (at least for this production). The white goats whose milk becomes the cheese for which the piece is named click down the ramps with their high-heeled hooves; the boards creak as the women open and close the gates. In the video Squeeze, effort is registered in the creaking of the rough mechanisms Rottenberg has constructed: platforms revolve, heavy doors lift and drop with the suddenness of a guillotine, wooden panels slide open and close, registering their movement through sound. In the way that pentimento is a part of drawing, so Rottenberg recognizes the process as an essential part of her pieces. In the interview that follows she says, “It’s a question of exposing the traces of the thing’s making because the work is about work and labour.”
In a carefully held, and I’d say respectful, parody of production and labour, the artist examines the seemingly inevitable human engagement with manufacture and value, distribution and excess. She said it began with reading Marx; so the roots of her work are political and she readily acknowledges her feminist commitment. But she also told us that what caught her attention was Marx’s description of a kind of work–in this case it was weaving. Engaged by the “complete self-absorption involved in that making,” she described it as a poetic, beautiful and abstract moment.
Think of someone drawing a thread through the eye of a needle and how the tip of the tongue at the mouth’s corner helps the process. Look at Squeeze and the apertures Rottenberg opens in the wooden structures that make up the complex set. A heavy plank wall reveals a small opening into which a very pink tongue has been inserted. It flicks in a kind of desperation, calling without voice for moisture, and is rewarded with a spray of water. (You could also read it lewd and waving, like a hammy actor floundering on a vaudeville stage.) Rottenberg’s explanation was that she wanted the wall to be alive so it needed a mouth. The tongue, of course, needed to be kept moist. The other openings in the wall were, as she said, for the naked white butts arranged behind the Asian women massaging what appear to be the disembodied arms of the lettuce-picking women harvesting the greens from vast fields in Arizona. Practically, Rottenberg says, the explanation is a simple cooling system for the women who crush the produced materials in a vat that slides under their feet. It’s hot work. In the making, Rottenberg firmly adheres to a logic of her own. The perspectives presented in the videos aren’t rational constructions; nonetheless there is an entirely cohesive, enigmatic visual resolution in the work.
Women are most often engaged in work to which little value is ascribed and they are compensated accordingly. Today, in progressive courtrooms, the dollar amount arrived at for the loss of value when a married woman–that is, someone’s wife–suffers an injury that makes her unable to work as she had, is a surprise for all involved. How to assign a figure for dishwashing, childcare, daily cooking, laundry, vacuuming, fluffing, bolstering, chauffeuring, escorting and entertaining, times a lifetime? The sum is staggering. In Rottenberg’s videos, women who have paid evident attention to their grooming, however extreme their body types may be, and often appearing in the candy-coloured uniforms of waitresses or aestheticians, engage in repetitive activity, the outcome of which is futile, obscure or marginal. In stacked and crowded spaces, manufactured by the artist using dollar store materials and the rough ends of things, these women go about their tasks in the cohesive way that women work together, connected to each other through a common purpose–rhythmically, pleasantly, evidencing a willingness to participate.
Rottenberg says when she starts a piece she looks for an essence. The women in her works are kneading and squeezing, they’re sweating and stretching and reaching, not in a gym but in the course of the work assigned to them. What they produce are essences, distillations in Rottenberg’s work.
The videos have elements that are unnerving and disturbing in the situations they present, but they also hold images of unexpected beauty. The rooster and the rose–a temporary pastoral still life; the six longhaired women gazing into the vat containing their morning’s labours–a milk mirror reflecting their even faces; the solid and seemingly serene Buddha-like black woman meditating in her confining space; the light; the deliberate palette.
Rottenberg sets in place the potential for political tension in her work. It’s not a caricature she wants in her actors, she says, but a friction she hopes is real; then you’re not sure who’s in power and who’s not. As a viewer watching, you’re also not certain what’s inside and what’s out, what parts are body, or otherwise. Mystery is fine with the artist. “It happens,” she says, “if you make a place out of your body, like a landscape.”
What we perceive, wherever it is we are standing, is a rich visual fecundity.
The interview with Mika Rottenberg was conducted by telephone in New York on December 30, 2010.
Border Crossings: Where do the ideas for the videos come from? What gets you going?
Mika Rottenberg: That’s a good question and it’s one I ask myself between pieces. For me the ideas make sense: of course we’ll make tissues out of bodybuilder’s sweat, and of course the bodybuilder needs stay-awake pills in order to produce more sweat, and of course she needs to drink lemon juice, and there has to be a naked guy running by.
So these are logical connections for you. They’re not unusual or extraordinary?
No. They don’t seem extraordinary at all. I don’t want them to be completely surreal. A lot of ideas don’t work precisely because they don’t make sense. It can’t just be any rendering. It takes a long time before I find an idea that I want to put everything into. I take a long time to develop each piece, and it’s not one piece for me. The last one especially seemed like a lot of different sculptures, different paintings and different things that I was thinking about brought into one piece. Once I fence it in, once I find the general idea and structure, then there is a whole other process that involves all the details.
Do you storyboard the way a filmmaker does?
Until now, it has really started from the building of the sets. That might change, but I have a general idea, which is usually a lot more complicated and impossible than the thing I end up doing. The way to bind it to reality is to start building something. When I’m done building, then I might do some kind of a storyboard. I do a lot of drawings and I have storyboards, but you probably wouldn’t call them that. There are a lot of idea diagrams and they show development and sequences, but it probably only makes sense to me.
You say it starts out being more complicated: is your process one of reducing the possibilities until you focus on what becomes the narrative? And the narrative is somehow determined by the set you’ve already built?
That’s pretty much how it goes. I’m looking for an essence, so it’s like I have this texture or a sound, almost like a physical feeling, like being squeezed, or sweating. I try different kinds of scenarios to see if I can get the sensations through them. It’s not as confident a procedure as the way I’m talking about it.
So you’re finding out where you’re going as you’re doing it rather than determining where you’re going from the outset?
Absolutely. But as the projects get bigger, it’s hard to insist on this way of working. People want to know what they’re doing, and your producers want to know so that they can budget. I’ve been working with the same cinematographer for the last three projects, and he is an amazing person. He’s very patient, which I think comes from the process of trusting each other more and more, and his understanding the way I work.
Do you build the sets inside your own studio?
No, I don’t really have a studio. It changed with the last video because I needed a really big studio. But it’s not something I need on a daily basis. I also like moving spaces and exploring a new space for each piece. Each piece needs its own space.
In that way you are operating like a filmmaker on location?
Yes, but the difference is that I am very hands-on in building the set, and a lot of the time the set dictates the narrative. That’s why it’s more sculptural because it is the result of a real construction.
At the same time that the set is important, you are also fascinated by the close-up. What is it about the flesh cartography that interests you so much?
I guess there is a voyeuristic element. I usually work with people who are exhibitionists; they have websites where they advertise their desire to be photographed and to be looked at. They’re not actors, but they have different talents. Part of it is that dynamic between voyeur and exhibitionist. I like those nuances, and I’m fascinated by the characters and by their bodies. There is this scrutinizing look that is so intense that it sometimes seems like a medical examination.
It’s interesting that you say that because one of the most compelling images in Cheese is the beautiful blue eye looking out between the slats of the goat pen. It isn’t just a question of the viewer looking in at the video, but the video is looking out at the viewer as well.
Yes. I also have it with the tongue in Squeeze. It’s the tongue, and then it’s the eye. I like the idea that it’s almost licking someone’s eye, which reminds me of Janine Antoni’s piece. I really think about touch, smell and sound, but it’s very visual for me. So if I take care of the other senses, then the visual will resolve itself and the piece will be visually interesting.
At some point Matthew Barney must have influenced you, and some residue of that encounter hangs about your work.
It’s unavoidable. I was blown away by his work when I discovered it in Israel. I still think he is an amazing artist. But there are a lot of other artists that interest me.
I think of Fischli and Weiss, and even Wim Delvoye and Cloaca. There is a sense of the excremental in your work, even though you don’t deal directly with shit.
I deal with the orifices of the body, so it’s everything that gets pushed out.
You walk a line between the grotesque and abject on one side and the lyric and sensual, to the point of the fetish, on the other.
I don’t see it as grotesque. I see it as more poetic. Things that are beautiful turn me on visually, so I never want to make them too grotesque or distasteful. It’s a thin line, and I’ve crossed it when someone stops being an individual character. I always want to feel that my characters are doing something with me, rather than me simply observing them. I think that becomes grotesque.
Is this part of what you talk about when you refer to the magic in the mundane?
Yes, I think that’s why a lot of the time I use people with extreme physiques. They have a lot of body, and the relationship between them and their bodies gets amplified.
In your mind, what is the relationship between the bodybuilder, the contortionist and the strongman in Fried Sweat? How do those three things hold together in your imagination?
The contortionist vanishes in the end. It was the idea that if you push your body to such an extreme, you can vanish. You know how water goes from liquid to gas; it’s almost as if you go to another space. You spoil yourself and then you kind of vanish. I was trying to create this energetic point between them, so everyone does their maximum, and then it’s as if she boils over and then vanishes.
There is also a pleasing confusion in Fried Sweat: when you first see the bodybuilder’s skin close up, you don’t know what body part you’re looking at. Then when he begins to make sounds, you don’t know if his exertions are from manual labour, from defecating or even from having sex. Do you want that confusion on the viewer’s part?
I thought of it as this mysterious space. For me that happens, especially if you make a place out of your body, like a landscape. It’s as if you’re exploring this mysterious landscape and I like that kind of confusion.
Trixxter Bombshell and the bodybuilder in Tropical Breeze, like many of the figures in your videos, are almost topographies.
Sure. I think it goes back and forth because a lot of times their personalities don’t necessarily come out in the video in a straightforward way. I would never work with someone who is not conscious of how they perform.
How much directing do you do?
I get confused with directing because I have no training, and it’s not like I know what I want. I know how to create a situation that I want, and then I hope to 2011find the thing I want in it. For me it’s chemistry, almost like alchemy. Putting it together is an experiment. I want to control the situation, but I don’t want to control the result. I want to put them in a situation where they show different expressions and behave differently, and then I can find the one that fits. I have a problem directing someone, and sometimes I feel they need more direction. The situations in which we shoot are also challenging; otherwise it’s not so interesting for me. Like in Florida with the animals, or with the dough, or the real squeezing. I try to create situations where their bodies will just act by themselves so the people don’t have to act that much.
That’s a very open process. Yet what you end up with are videos that are highly refined and elegant. They don’t seem accidental in any way.
That’s because of the editing. I shoot a lot, and that is a constant argument with the cinematographer. I started shooting things myself with a friend, and we had these endless Hi8 tapes. So you just shoot and shoot and shoot. And I never had a problem with giving 100 hours to the editor because I was the editor. Now I realize that I have to shoot less because it takes more time, and with the new cameras, you can’t shoot forever. So technology is dictating what we do. A lot of the refinements are done in the editing suite. But the more I do it and the more experience I have, the more comfortable I am with shooting less. I’m really into people when it looks like they are doing what they are doing, the little nuances revealed by their faces or bodies when they are making an effort.
Do you personally have an obsession with long hair? It starts four years before Cheese in Time and a Half?
I like the idea of the body expanding and becoming an object. I like this duality, this connector between interior space and exterior space. I remember being fascinated by that. And I just like how it looks. That might be visual fetishism.
In Cheese, there is a real sexual fetishization with long hair.
Yes, Leona, the blonde woman, has a website, and I did an interview with her in which we discuss what she thinks the fascination is. She does live webcam work, and she said the scene where there is just her eye peeping through the hair corresponds to the most popular request on her site. It was funny that I requested what every guy on her website asks for. Some of the women are more conservative, almost like Victorians. For them growing your hair is about femininity and beauty, and they are kind of crippled by it. Then there is the more sexualized group of women. In Cheese, most of the women are part of the hair lovers and not the hair fetishists. The two camps didn’t like one another.
The scene where the women shake out their hair is beautiful and sensually charged. They shake their hair in different ways: one looks like a cascading waterfall; another woman performs a delicate dance. But you can’t take your eyes off the shimmering hair of the blonde.
You should have seen it in reality. I don’t think we captured how beautiful it was. Your mouth drops open. The women are based on the Sutherlands, a group of sisters from the 1800s who developed this hair tonic as a cure for baldness. Basically it was made out of water and alcohol, so it was a kind of snake oil. But they made a lot of money from it, and the way they sold it at first was they would go to drugstores and shake their hair.
There is another beautiful scene in Cheese where the sunlight falls on the flexing bicep of one of the women as she is milking a goat. All you see is her muscle rising and falling. Was that a shot you planned, or was it found?
Everything is very directed. It has to do with the light. We actually had a crisis on the first day. The person who was supposed to do the lighting wasn’t really up to the task. We were two hours from Orlando, and there weren’t that many film people in the area, and I didn’t have the money to fly people in, other than the dp, Mahyad Tousi, and Katrin Altekamp, the person who did the special effects. I had been there almost a year building the farm, and I realized on the first day of the shoot that if I didn’t have someone who could really light the set, it was not going to happen. It was an emergency, and so I begged this amazing lighting person, Faz Kashani, and he flew in from New York.
Wasn’t there also a revolt because the women wanted to wash their hair and on a tight schedule you couldn’t afford them the time?
Yes. Before Cheese I had only worked with one person, so this was the biggest shoot I had ever done. Doing the earlier videos was a big enough challenge because, for example, Raqui is very big, and it was hard for her to fit into small spaces. It had seemed very complicated, but we were only three people on set and it was in my studio. So I thought if I can do that, I can do Cheese. But on that first day, I realized that I had these six women with long hair and I had 20 animals. We had to film everything in seven days, and I didn’t have the crew. So Nicole Klagsbrun, my gallerist, sent more money, and we re-shaped everything in 24 hours and ended up with an amazing crew. We had been shooting for half a day, and it was summer in Florida and unbearably hot. So on top of not having a gaffer and other crew members and having all the animals, the women suddenly wanted to wash their hair. They formed a union against me and went on strike, and everything collapsed on the first day. But eventually it found its own rhythm, and for the rest of the week it was an amazing experience. Part of the legal agreement coming out of the strike was that whenever I talk to the press, or give an interview, I have to say how beautiful and mesmerizing their hair is. They made me sign something. So I’m saying that now.
After one woman sneezes out a rabbit, a sort of farmyard pandemonium ensues: there’s bleating and clucking and quacking and women running around with their hair flying. From a narrative perspective, what is it that sets everything in motion?
This is where I thought a lot about how a sculptural set can dictate something that looks like an accident. In reality, the Sutherland sisters were bad farmers, which was why they had to grow their hair instead of growing crops. So every morning they wake up and the goats escape. But they already have the farm built for the accident that happens every morning when the goats escape. The milking station is also their dressing room; it’s where they get dressed because they know the goats will escape every morning and they don’t want to run around in their pyjamas; so they have their clothes near by. I just thought it would be fun to make it look like an accident, but the whole set is built of solid materials around this accident. They wake up, the goats escape, they chase the goats. I saw it almost like this big pinball machine. I love animals, so I worked with the goats a lot and understood how to make this round structure that they run around as they get from one point to another.
Were you the animal wrangler?
At that point I had Katrin Altekamp, who moved from the profession of model maker to animal wrangler. She is sensitive, loves animals and is a vegetarian. I thought she would be the perfect animal wrangler. I knew the animals, although the goose was very problematic. I actually rescued him from a milk crate and he only had one eye. He knew how to turn his face whenever he was on camera so we would only shoot his good side. At one point in Dough the busty woman stands up and essentially rearranges her ample breasts.
Was that a directed moment?
That was a stolen moment. That’s the thing about keeping the camera running. There are times when the actors are just waiting, and that’s when I always go and turn the camera on.
In the video named after her, why does Julie have an eye patch?
It had to do with having the camera upside down. I had a lot of reasons when I did it, but they’ve all since escaped. It was about disturbing vision twice, once turning it upside down and then covering it. There was also something about Nefertiti having one eye facing inward and one facing outside.
What is she doing in the snow in the first place?
I was interested in creating this line and having her cross it on her hands. I was thinking about time physically, so the video moves from point A to point B. I was also really fascinated by a frozen lake because I had never seen one. I thought shooting there would be dangerous and impossible.
That film operates through a fairly simple idea: in one wide shot near the end it looks as if she’s hanging onto the top of the sky.
Yes, it was almost as if I had to make the simplest gesture. It was the most video-artsy kind of video: put a person in a situation and do one action. It was a kind of reduction. From that, I did Tropical Breeze and the more complicated sculptural videos.
The movement from Cheese to Squeeze is a complicating one. Is the natural trajectory of the work to move towards more ambitious, feature-length videos?
I don’t know. I feel like I shouldn’t immediately jump back into a new piece. I always take long breaks and do a lot of smaller pieces and drawings and photographs between videos. I’m not sure where I want to go. I feel like I want to do something that is not in a constructed set. But I don’t see it getting simpler; I see it getting bigger. I need the challenge. I start every piece with a sense that it is impossible to make with the budget and the time and the resources that I have.
Do you need to have those constraints? You make art out of a sense of adversity?
Yes. I think it is definitely the challenge. I don’t think so much about the final result; I think about what kind of person I’ll become when I’m done. The process needs to be interesting. When you’re a painter, every day you go to the same studio, and that may not be as interesting as travelling to a latex foundation. I wouldn’t be able to go to the same place every day. I need to travel to a latex foundation.
Do each of these videos change you? Are you a different being coming out than you were going in?
Yes. I learn a lot about people and myself in situations, and about how I deal with my anxieties and my fears. Because usually I’m doing things that really scare me. They also really drain me, which is probably the case with every artist. Each piece that you make sucks something away. It’s a sort of slow killing. That’s why I need to take breaks from these long pieces.
Are any of the things that we see in the films your own obsessions or fetishes? I guess I’m asking a question about the autobiographical. Are these videos psychic traces of the inside of your own head?
I guess they have to be because they come from my head. But I don’t have a wardrobe of latex outfits or anything like that. It’s not so direct that these things would be my personal fetish. I do have to have a very personal understanding of them, though. It’s not a sexual fetish, but I have this thing for different sounds or for materials. It’s more like a visual fetish. It calms me down.
The tongue sticking out of the wall and the formfitting holes for the women’s butts are like the glory holes that are the stock-in-trade of porn. Are you riffing on pornography in creating those orifices from which body parts can protrude?
No. I wanted the wall to be alive, so it made sense that the mouth will come out of the wall. And the butt holes are a cooling system for the crushing ladies; they have to crush everything and it’s really hot in that small room, so one part of them has to be cool.
So there is a kind of logic operating again; if people are working hard they have to cool down, so you lower the temperature on one part of their bodies?
Exactly. I was also thinking of those ’80s posters of girls in bikinis and misted butts. It’s the same thing with the hair and the person; it becomes this duality between subject and object. I like to say that one side is like a complete object, a butt, and the other side is the person. I like that doubleness.
Those holes are form fitting, which means they had to correspond to the individual bodies of the women.
I didn’t know what to do when I was doing the casting, although it turned out to be easy in the end. I thought it would be really embarrassing to call different women and ask them to show me their butts. They are the only ones who are actresses; the rest of the people just do what they do. But the actresses had no problem; they were even excited to show me their butts. I was wondering how much I would have to cut each hole, and as it turned out we just had small, medium and large. We didn’t have to do much customizing.
One of the many things I like about the work is the low-grade construction. The conveyor system in Dough is just blue binder twine, and you make a cheap wooden flip-down platform for the fan and the flowers. In Squeeze, the mechanics of the moving set is adorably primitive. Is that an economic necessity or is that the look that you want?
That’s definitely the look I want for the mechanism. I love the fact that things don’t work and that they are put together in the editing. I guess it’s a question of exposing the traces of the thing’s making because the work is about work and labour. You actually see things that are not completely finished, and you see evidence of a person touching and making them.
I want to talk about the question of women’s work and labour. Your videos would be susceptible to a feminist, and even a Marxist, analysis of production. Does it plug into that larger political structure?
The whole body of work started when I was reading Marx. I was fascinated by the connection between value and labour and time. And I am a feminist, so that reading is not completely off. But I feel my responsibility is to make the best art piece I can and not necessarily make a political statement. I have to say that my fascination with Marx came from the way he would describe a person making something. There was this whole description about weaving, and what attracted me was the complete self-absorption involved in that making. It was a poetic, beautiful and abstract moment.
So it’s the poetics of the means of production that interests you in Marx and not the historical analysis of capitalism?
Exactly. I think the work is very slippery. I think that once you try to make it conform to a political statement, then the work isn’t really served.
Your sense of detail is perfect; in Tropical Breeze it’s the air freshener hanging from the interior mirror in the truck and the animal-patterned steering wheel cover. Do you bring those details to your set design?
For sure. I like those details. So in Time and a Half where the girl with the long hair is sitting in the Chinese restaurant, I brought in the huge trees. I wanted to get to the point where her body with the fingernails was a mediator to the external world. Her fingernails become a space for escape, so they have these landscapes on them. The detail makes it not a caricature.
The way you shoot the fingers and the hand from above makes them become almost an animated body. A strange transformation takes place: the hand becomes corporeal rather than digital.
Yes. It is a very uncanny moment with the hand, like in The Addams Family where the hand becomes a pet. You have said that when you dissect clichés you show how “creepy and uncanny they are.” The uncanny is a classic Surrealist reference. You mentioned earlier in this conversation that you don’t want to push things too far in that direction.
But does the work use Surrealism as an informing principle?
Yes, but it is about the real. It is very grounded, but so is Surrealism. Maybe the starting point for the work is not so much my own psyche as a social psyche. There is definitely a logic to my work.
I guess it is logical to clip a red fingernail, mash it into something out of which comes a maraschino cherry. It seems mad, but at a certain level it’s sensible.
Yes. Things have to be loaded as well. A maraschino cherry and red fingernails have other connotations, so one thing that looks like something will turn into something else. Each thing that it transforms into will need its own baggage for it to be interesting to me.
Roberta Smith talks about your “wry and deeply disturbing vision.” Do you regard your work as having that disturbing dimension?
You tell me. I get uncomfortable making it, so in the end I think it must have some discomfort for the viewer. A lot of the time that’s what makes me try to resolve the situation. When the video is completed, I no longer have that sense of discomfort. So in casting Heather Foster the bodybuilder as a truck driver, I didn’t know how that would read because she’s African American. Even in Squeeze you have that racial friction that for me was the fuel, the energy, behind the whole machine. So it’s not the meditation but the friction between the characters that makes the thing work. I didn’t know if I could get away with having Asian women with naked white butts behind them and a black woman meditating. I didn’t know how that would read. I didn’t want a caricature but a real friction that would be more dynamic because you’re not sure who’s in power and who’s not.
Heather adds a nice touch. When the naked guy runs by, she has a sly smile on her face. You make the assumption hers is a recognition of desire, and that shifts how we view her in the video.
Yes. I guess you’re not exactly sure who’s the boss and who’s the employee. She owns the means of production. I guess Tropical Breeze was my most Marxist video. What is your use value and how do you measure someone’s labour and box it off? I was thinking along the lines of “how many tissues does she produce in an hour and what is the surplus?”
It’s a smart idea to take sweat and turn it into the product that gets sold. In a way, you reduce the Marxist equation to a readable form.
Yes. Then I thought because she is a bodybuilder we could sell the tissues on eBay to her fans and to art collectors, but it didn’t work. I don’t know what Marx would say. I guess by doing this whole thing I function as the owner of my factory, so I’m not sure I’m a good Marxist.
Are you surprised by where your career is right now?
Every time I finish a piece I get really confused. It doesn’t seem like a solid thing and it doesn’t feel so fast. I have been making art seriously since I was 18 or 19, giving everything in doing it, so I’ve had 15 years of art making. It’s all in the making. Because I give so much to each piece, I really want to make sure it is the right thing to commit to. Also, I feel like Squeeze was an exit point, especially because of the portals into another space. Then I think every artist wants to imagine they’re going to make something else, but in the end you make the same thing over and over. It just takes on a different shape. ❚