It’s hard to figure out where to start or to stop, really. The videos in Mika Rottenberg’s installations tend to run on endless loops, following seemingly nonsensical narratives with no beginning or end, in which a cast of apathetic (mostly female) characters participate in absurd cycles of production. What exactly is the end product is never clear to us, or to them it seems, yet we find ourselves unable to look away, so compelling are those zany assembly lines. And so we keep waiting in vain for some sort of resolution or ultimate end, we ourselves caught in a Beckettian limbo.
The Argentinian artist has developed over the past two decades an idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable visual language that channels the dynamics and contradictions of a global, capitalist and hyperconnected world, in rich and quirky works that push those social, political and economical logics to the point of the absurd. And though she has participated in major international exhibitions including the 2015 Venice Biennale and Documenta 14 in Athens last year, this is Rottenberg’s (overdue) debut in London, which fittingly marks the inauguration of Goldsmiths CCA – another much-anticipated addition to the city’s cultural landscape, established in former baths owned by the art college and refurbished by Turner Prize-winning collective Assemble.
Rottenberg’s installations adapt to the space they inhabit, the sculptural elements luring us into the worlds depicted in her videos: a narrow tunnel leads the viewer to Cosmic Generator (Variant 4) (2017–18), echoing the difficult onscreen circulation of men through an endless network of underground passages between the Mexico–US border; a revolving door with a bingo counter matches the one in the shabby game room of Bowls Balls Souls Holes (Bingo Variant) (2014), filled with women frantically stamping numbers with their colour dabbers; and part of the underground workshop of mass-produced cultured pearls featured in NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant) (2015) is replicated at the entrance of the gallery in which the videowork is shown.
While these ‘portals’ serve to blur the line between fiction and reality in the exhibition space, in the videos they are metaphorical devices. In Cosmic Generator, for instance, the tunnels connect a border town in Mexico to the packed stalls of the Yiwu International Trade City, a temple of wholesale ‘made in China’ commodities, pointing to the paradox of a world in which Mexicans are having to dig down in order to cross a physical border while elsewhere such barriers are becoming ever-more fluid waypoints for the exportation of goods. Ultimately, what runs through Rottenberg’s show is a sense of perpetual, inevitable motion – in the repetition of the tasks performed by the characters, the cause-and-effect unfolding of events or our own circulation dictated by the mechanics of the installations – which so imaginatively mirrors, in all its absurdity, the relentless cycles of a capitalist world. While undeniably offbeat and comical, the fantasy of these works rests on their connection to a more tangible reality: unable to contemplate an alternative or a way out, we, along with Rottenberg’s resigned characters, just keep on going.
Mika Rottenberg at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London, 8 September – 4 November
From the December 2018 issue of ArtReview