Mika Rottenberg, installation view of Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Produced by Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto; Arts at CERN, the arts program of the European Laboratory of Particle Physics, Geneva, with the support of the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations, Geneva; Sprengel Museum Hannover, with the support of Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung; and New Museum, New York. Photo: Phillip Maisel, © Mika Rottenberg, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Mika Rottenberg

San Francisco

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Mika Rottenberg’s current exhibition “Spaghetti Blockchain” (on view through October 22, 2023) combines film, installation, and sculpture to explore ideas of labor and value in a hyper-capitalist world, though not nearly as didactically as such a description would suggest. As the show’s droll title infers, Rottenberg’s self-styled “social surrealism” overwhelms viewers with so many extraordinary juxtapositions of the real and the imagined that it’s a good thing one of the videos on view is accompanied by beanbag recliners so that visitors can rest while taking in the plethora of mind-bending inventions. 

An entrancingly fake tunnel entrance leads into an installation with walls covered in white metal grids, on which mass-produced goods, such as a small inflatable palm tree and strings of twinkling lights, are hung. This space places visitors within the worlds created by Rottenberg’s three long videos: NoNoseKnows (2015), Cosmic Generator (2017), and Spaghetti Blockchain (2019). The cheap, mostly useless things that she highlights serve as reminders that we are all complicit in an endless chain of production and consumption, fueled by labor and desire. It’s possible to interact with several works in a room of wall-hung, Rube Goldberg-esque sculptures, such as # 33 with bamboo and bicycle (2020) in which various interconnected objects (including a ponytail and a plastic head of lettuce) revolve or flip when powered by pedals. But the three videos deserve the lion’s share of time and attention.

Each video is a loop, carefully created to have multiple points of entry and exit. The dream-like, nonlinear narratives seamlessly combine Rottenberg’s exquisitely realized, eye-popping fantasies with footage of the real places and things that inspired her. Such “real” segments include potatoes being harvested by a giant combine on a farm in Maine and tiny, claustrophobic booths in a Chinese wholesale market, where bored-looking women sell flashy plastic goods that range from topiary to tinsel. There are Tuvan throat singers intoning in windswept landscapes and bird’s eye views of the Large Hadron Collider’s insanely gigantic machinery. Scenery along the U.S.-Mexico border contrasts the different worlds on the two sides. Then, there is the bizarre and incredibly labor-intensive process through which freshwater pearls are forcibly created by Chinese women workers. 

Seamlessly interspersed with these actual places and people, men in suits crawl through imaginary tunnels, seemingly traversing a border (though which border is never specified). The lifted lid of a serving dish reveals men dressed as tacos lying inside. A power-suit-wearing, Amazonian woman with an increasingly reddened nose sniffs a bouquet of flowers until her Pinocchio-sized proboscis sneezes out plate after plate of unappetizing food. It accumulates in greasy stacks around her as, on a lower floor in the factory where she is performing this process, women pry open live mussels. They insert tiny pieces of severed tissue that the mussels will absorb and transform into immense freshwater pearls, only a tiny percentage of which will be jewelry-grade—a process that seems nearly as strange as the food production overhead. 

Such juxtapositions succeed in transforming nearly all of Rottenberg’s documentary footage. The tiny booths filled with women selling fake topiary, tinsel, and toys—in other words, plastic in all of its possible permutations—seem almost as surreal as the Amazon sneezing out pasta. The Chinese city through which she passes on her scooter on her way to the factory, with row upon row of identical beige buildings, looks as fake as the tunnel, or the peculiar waiting room at its end, which is decorated with a fountain improbably connected to one of the booths of shiny cheap goods with a plastic tube. 

Like fairytales—the real ones, in which awful things happen to the protagonists—there is a sense of a moral to all this. The world of such stories is one in which the suspension of disbelief allows the reader to accept all kinds of things: spinning flax into gold, magic beans, a nose that grows exponentially when its owner lies. But imagining something described in words is very different from seeing it. Captured in one of Rottenberg’s spell-binding loops, as if in a newly created circle of Hell, you return again and again to each of these strange scenes, trying to parse their meaning. You find yourself sinking into one of the beanbag recliners, bathing in the pleasurable, spectacular excess of her visions, even as it becomes clear that waste and loss, consumption and excess—both real and imaginary—are the intertwined threads in these never-ending tales, as the free flow of useless junk is contrasted with the difficult passage of people.