Mika Rottenberg’s Perpetual Motions

For her exhibition at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, the artist explores the potential of indefinite loops

Roland Barthes discerned in Georges Bataille’s sinful erotic novella, Story of the Eye (1928), ‘a perfectly spherical metaphor’ in which ‘each of the terms is always the signifier of another […] without our ever being able to stop the chain’. Eye becomes egg becomes testicle becomes sun becomes eye. This loop repeats itself at will; but, once entered, it opens up to a number of transitional, translational transformations. ‘A perfectly spherical metaphor’ is the consummate description for ‘Bowls Balls Souls Holes’, Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition at Sprüth Magers. At the entrance to the show is the installation Lips (Study #3) (2016), a pair of oversized, pouty lips on the wall that beckon the viewer to look inside. Through the lips, we see a kaleidoscopic video of body parts and colours in unrestrained movement. Buttocks squirt liquid from their anuses: a reminder that what starts at the lips always ends there. The digestive tract that begins with the mouth is, itself, a transformational, transitional journey, trapped in a loop behind the parted ‘oh’ of the synthetic orifice.

Mika Rottenberg, 'Bowls Balls Souls Holes', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London / Los Angeles; photography: Timo Ohler

In her sculptural video installation Bowls Balls Souls Holes (AC & Plant variant) (2014/18), Rottenberg takes us to a Harlem bingo hall, where a blonde woman with green acrylic nails calls out letters and numbers from a bingo ball machine. In the corner of the hall, a large young woman dozes off, seeming to have begrudgingly escorted an older relative here. Her third eye opens in her sleep to an image of the moon, then of water dripping off a melting glacier, then of boiling bubbles in the caller’s hotel room, then of bingo balls. Moon becomes droplet becomes bubble becomes ball; bowls become halls become souls become holes. She awakens when a drop of water, this time from an air conditioning unit from the bingo caller’s hotel room, makes its way into the hall through a small hole in the ceiling and drips onto her shoulder. Her anger at being awoken sends magical energy into the hall, until she falls asleep again.

At the front of the room, the bingo caller drops clothes pegs through a hole, which leads to a fun-house labyrinth of rooms. The pegs are pushed through by mechanisms in the labyrinth, until they reach a man who clips them to his face until they cover it entirely, his skin stretched and pinched in their combined holds. The strange architecture of the space beneath and above the bingo hall, the spatial relationship between the hotel room, the hall and the space below are uncertain and impossible by natural laws of physics. The man seems to conduct power through the clothes pegs, as does the bingo caller who attaches them to her toes at night in her hotel. When the man has had enough, he spins in a circle until he disappears, his clothes pegs appearing on the shore of a body of water. In the water, water drips from sitting glaciers. Circle becomes water droplet; disparate spaces, somehow, remain contained.

Mika Rottenberg, 'Bowls Balls Souls Holes', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London / Los Angeles; photography: Timo Ohler

In Rottenberg’s work, forms and images translate and transform, creating a loop from which none of them ever escapes. Even the video itself is a loop. If the metaphor sounds complicated, it’s because it is. In Rottenberg’s work, most things are: the architecture, the narrative, the bodies; Garry ‘Stretch’ Turner, who plays the clothes peg man, holds dual Guinness World Records for ‘World’s Stretchiest Skin’ and ‘Most Clothes Pegs Clipped on a Face’ (161!). As in a digestive system, no energy is lost; there’s no good time, no lull in the action, for the viewer to leave. We exit unceremoniously, discarded like waste, while the loop inside continues. Moon becomes droplet becomes bubble becomes ball. Bowls become halls become souls become holes. No one ever wins at bingo.

Mika Rottenberg, 'Bowls Balls Souls Holes' was on view at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, from 29 September until 10 November 2018.

Main image: Mika Rottenberg, 'Bowls Balls Souls Holes', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London / Los Angeles; photography: Timo Ohler

Grace Sparapani is a writer and researcher based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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