Mika Rottenberg’s videos mostly feature real women with extraordinary physical attributes, who toil in surreal assembly-line situations to create products from their own bodily matter. Rottenberg regards these women, who make a living through their bodies in various ways, often via their online personas, as self-empowered collaborators. In Mary’s Cherries (2004) three women in pastel coloured uniform shirts with stitched name tags manufacture cocktail cherries from finger nails in a compact make-shift factory. Fortified by burgers that arrive on a conveyer belt, they pedal furiously on stationary bikes to power a UV light bulb, which causes Mary to sprout talon-like red finger nails, which are clipped, mashed and rolled into sticky balls. Rock Rose, a wrestler and ‘squasher’ pauses to smoke a cigarette and dab sweat from her colossal cleavage, while statuesque Barbara pounds her huge fists and calls out to her co-worker impatiently. Sound is a central feature, much like in all the other works in the exhibition; the squelch of the cherries being rolled supports the sexual undercurrent running though the piece and Barbara’s shrill voice and tongue clicking resonates in the gallery space. Similar systems operate in both Tropical Breeze (2004), in which an energy drink fuelled bodybuilder’s sweat is collected on tissues and packaged by an acrobat and Dough (2005-2006), where a heavy woman sniffs flowers, tended to by her tremendously tall colleague, prompting hay fever tears that cause globs of dough to rise. All affirm Rottenberg’s Marxist concerns, which, as she confesses, materialise more poetically than politically. What interests her is the idea of a product containing the essence of the people who helped to create it and measuring its value by the processes involved in doing so.
Within Marx’s concepts alienated workers become dehumanised and are commodities in themselves, dispensable as factory parts, where as Rottenberg’s women remain the strong personalities that they are, their duties relating to their special talents and traits. They are performers carrying out stylised actions and despite their inadequate working conditions you don’t exactly pity them, although they often appear bored. The wholesome lifestyle of the women in Cheese (2008) is actually quite enviable in its simplicity. Six women with floor length hair care for chickens and milk goats to make cheese, resting peacefully at night in a wooden shack. They also collect waterfall mist in a metal funnel, to let it run through their hair and bottle it as a tonic. The women often demonstrate a sense of camaraderie in these videos and generally produce products that remain with them rather than being passed on to a higher power or consumer. The exception being the work Squeeze (2010), where the item in question is a vile cube of rubber, lettuce and blusher, resembling something that has been scraped out of the gutter after a night in a busy town centre. The art dealer Mary Boone, petite and well-heeled proudly displays the cube in an image on the wall (Mary Boone with Cube, 2010), the dollar signs practically flashing in her eyes. Here, Rottenberg simultaneously pokes fun at the way in which a useless object can become marketable in the right hands, as well as acknowledging her own role in the money-spinning process.