Two works – a video installation by Mika Rottenberg in Melbourne and a site-specific work in Sydney by Anri Sala – show how incongruous imagery can reveal the absurdity of the forces to which we unthinkingly submit. By Patrick Hartigan.
Mika Rottenberg and Anri Sala
The sense of suspense in the video installation Squeeze (2010), the tension and rhythm, relates to an elaborate and nonsensical fabrication that is more convincing than the reality it feeds off. The work, by Mika Rottenberg, is on view until December 16 in an exhibition called The Humours, curated by Hannah Mathews, at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA).
Certain art experiences come to mind here: the writings of David Foster Wallace, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In each of these cases, fiction is a peephole through which to view the various goings-on of reality, as if for the first time, and therein discover the hilarities and hallucinations we’ve been preprogrammed to accept as “reasonable” and “normal”.
The central component of Squeeze is a 20-minute video. Outside the viewing room for this video is a large-format photograph and customs declaration, providing addenda through which to further reflect on the video’s content.
The focal point of it – a hacked mess of lettuce, rouge, rubber and body matter – mystifies while latterly helping to clarify what this work is fundamentally about: the vagaries of value. Around this strange miscellany, an elaborate, makeshift sweatshop shifts and grinds like a human-scale Rubik’s cube. Sections and departments rotate; doors and hatches open and shut. Everything moves towards the goal of product with grim determination.
Rottenberg has said that the work began after dining at a restaurant where she eavesdropped on a salad broker and learnt about the constantly fluctuating value of iceberg lettuce. Then there was a sensation – that of trees squeezing out rubber – and the idea of “choose-your-own salad bars”.
The work delivers a smorgasbord of peculiars: tongues and bottoms poking through walls, peasant latex farmers inserting their arms down holes in the ground to be cooled by a subterranean parlour of water-squirters and buttocks-sweat-harvesters. There is a recurring scene of a woman – in her main role resembling a coin collector outside a post-Eastern Bloc toilet block – being squeezed by the cushioned, compressing studwork of a wall.
Oddly enough, none of this seems so strange as to not potentially be real. This is due to the way each constituent, however bizarre, relates so convincingly and logically to the whole. Like Willy Wonka and the free-market economy in which we live – both of these relying on invisible feats of endurance while governed by phantom hierarchies that squeeze and release the world’s population – Rottenberg’s system presents an enigma that somehow holds together.
After watching the video, I returned to the photograph. It showed New York art dealer Mary Boone looking somewhat like a duty-free salesperson while proudly holding a cube of salad mystery. The accompanying customs declaration documents the item as: “Fine art (1 cubic foot); vegetable matter, Pure Latex Cream (PLC); cosmetics.” Having been divorced from its cycle of labour, the celebrated object – valueless and potentially very valuable – has been sent to the Cayman Islands and “stored in perpetuity”.
I could hear Ms Boone, behind her hollow and steadfast eyes, saying: “Lightweight and tax free.”
Rottenberg has said of her interests and process: “It’s not just visual, it’s energetic. It’s about trying to locate feeling that has no shape.” The details of Squeeze might be strange but the shapes and currents running through it are all too familiar. Video in this artist’s hands proves to be the ideal medium – in all senses of that word – through which to channel and translate the economic and social forces governing human life, forces constantly felt but ultimately too absurd to give direct voice.
Anri Sala’s The Last Resort (2017), a site-specific work in the rotunda on Sydney’s Observatory Hill, closing Sunday, marks the 33rd instalment of Kaldor Public Art Projects.
From the grassy slopes of Observatory Hill, with water all around, there can be the feeling of being on an island. Sala’s work engages this physical setting against the historical backdrop of the Enlightenment, the period in which scientific knowledge became key, Australia was described by white explorers, and Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto in A Major (1791).
Sala was interested in exploring “the rift and ensuing contradiction between the departure point of some remarkable principles of the Enlightenment – such as tolerance and a non-judgemental acceptance of the other – and their fallouts on arrival, exacerbating prejudices, which in turn caused untold devastation and loss”.
A collection of snare drums and attached drumsticks, hanging from the ceiling of the rotunda upside down and somewhat bat-like, cleverly inverts the outwardly focused gaze of the Enlightenment and those telescopes in the neighbouring observatory. From separate speakers inside the drums we receive two gently rifting and merging streams: the well-known, immaculately poised adagio from Mozart’s score and that of the weather, as translated from the diary of James Bell, a sailor aboard a ship travelling from England to Adelaide in 1838.
Without prior knowledge of this, it’s easy to interpret, at least initially and on a breezy day, that what one is hearing is a piece of music interfered with by the surrounding wind. This sensitivity to the landscape and disjuncture between immediate and mediated experiences is what makes The Last Resort succeed. In his catalogue essay, Ross Gibson points out the multitudinousness of tempo circulating these shores:
“The various cultures cohabiting here define and remember history in radically different ways, such that Time here draws along no simple, single line. Instead it sloshes, intermixes, overlaps and never settles.”
Metre and meteorology surface in Sala’s work, so as to allow it to gently drift into and out of its surroundings. I found it worthwhile walking around the island hill, even popping into the observatory where the collecting and ordering practices of the Enlightenment are on rich display. This helps to bring the subtlety of Sala’s intervention into focus, one that resists explanation or any simplistic construing of history.
With ears pricked, I wandered the stairs and alleyways towards Circular Quay. Along the way, Mozart faded into Jimmy Barnes’s “Working Class Man” (1985):
He’s a simple man
With a heart of gold
In a complicated land
Oh he’s a working class man
The music came from the deck of a massive cruise ship before giving way to a chorus of jackhammers.
It was curious to suddenly be so aware of time and social and political strata through hearing. The strength of a work of art can relate to its catalysing of receptivity as much as the experience it gives you in a brief moment of viewing.
In both Squeeze and The Last Resort our attention is brought to latent political and social forces, with sensitivity and dispassion rather than emotion and brute force. Granted a few moments outside the vortex of daily preoccupation, we are given the opportunity to tune in to the currents and contours determining our shared and individual voyages.
CABARET Robyn Archer: Oue Reste T’il (What Remains?)
Arts Centre, Melbourne, November 10-11
MUSIC Handpicked Festival
Langhorne Creek, South Australia, November 11
MULTIMEDIA Pipilotti Rist: Sip My Ocean
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 18
MULTIMEDIA Alternative Frequencies: 40 Years of RTRFM
State Library of Western Australia, Perth, November 9-February 11
VISUAL ART Yayio Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until February 11
POP CULTURE Supanova 2017
Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, November 10-11
Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, November 4-5
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "The invisible hands".
During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.