Fans, sneezes, ponytails and pearls. If these nouns appear to have nothing in common, that’s because they don’t, except that all appear in Mika Rottenberg’s “Easypieces,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Her pieces let the viewer in on the artist’s private obsessions, lavishing an extraordinary amount of attention on the most quotidian details of the world around us. While this disconnect has the potential to offer a poetry of the everyday, it instead turns its subject matter into a soupy, muddled swarm of images.
Consider Rottenberg’s most recent video, “Spaghetti Blockchain.” Named for the digital ledger used to publicly and chronologically record cryptocurrency transactions such as with bitcoin, this compilation seems to illustrate the power of the Internet to link even the most ostensibly distant corners of the globe, cycling as it does between Tuvan throat singers in Siberia, the CERN Antimatter Factory in France and a potato farm in Maine and other locales. This stream isn’t actually random but is instead shot through with Rottenberg’s fixations. Of course, all artists have preoccupations, although in Rottenberg’s case these interests seem to halt at the surface of the screen as if they’re inside a glass box we can peer into but not enter.
To be fair, some moments are more inviting, such as Rottenberg’s gravitation toward the sort of sounds that have been popularized by ASMR enthusiasts. “Spaghetti Blockchain” is chock-full of such examples, such as rubbery cylinders that make a wet schlop when cut and a sharp sizzle when plopped on an industrial grill. Other sonic cousins include a pump that appears to thicken hair on a series of balding heads and a hand that hurriedly rustles brightly colored marbles, reminiscent of the childhood game Hungry Hungry Hippos. Even when these noises successfully trigger affective responses, one is left wondering what the need is to have such experiences within the four white walls of the museum when similar stimuli are plentiful and free throughout our media landscape.
In lieu of serious conceptual concerns, Rottenberg offers instead strangeness for its own sake, like a David Lynch film minus uncanniness. It isn’t surprising then, when she props herself up with Asian stereotypes. For far too long, the “Asians are weird” trope has circulated throughout global culture (“Lost in Translation,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Donnie Darko”). At least Rottenberg’s Orientalism is international in her “Cosmic Generator” video, which brings a Californian Chinese restaurant into conversation with Yiwu International Trade City, a wholesale market in Yiwu, China. Throughout, the viewer is confronted over and over by the extreme lengths Rottenberg must have gone through to secure this footage, though what is perhaps most impressive about Rottenberg’s high-budget videos with high production values is how the work manages to do so little with so much. The exhibition’s title is apt, if only by accident. These works truly are “easy pieces”: easy to watch and easy to forget. (Brandon Sward)
“Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 East Chicago, through March 8, 2020.