The first thing that struck me when I visited Nottingham Contemporary on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday was the sound of violent sneezes. It was not a member of the public suffering from hay fever – but rather a short film entitled Sneeze, a comical piece in which reddened noses shoot out cuts of meat and a live rabbit.
It was a light-hearted introduction to artist Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition at the Contemporary. Rhyming pleasingly with her other works (Cheese, Squeeze, Tropical Breeze and Mary’s Cherries), it foregrounded the human body and its functions while also raising a wry smile.
Around the corner is Squeeze, a 20-minute long film which sees women from around the world engaged in menial tasks. A dream-like landscape gives way to documentary film footage of Chinese women massaging the hands of Mexican workers harvesting lettuces and a woman being squeezed until she becomes so pink she can dust the colour off to make blusher.
The clunking sounds and repetitive nature of the women’s work reminded me of the mechanical processes in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In Rottenberg’s film, the end product is not as significant as the process: the blusher disappears down a hole while the lettuce is mashed to a pulp. The piece alludes to the Marxist idea that identity is bound up in the ‘means of production’, although Rottenberg says it is in the poetic sense rather than the political. In this way she also hints at the similarity between mass production and creating artwork. Human identity is infused in everything they produce, no matter how throwaway the product is. But unlike art, these products will not normally be put on display in a gallery and there is a sense in which the product, and by extension, the person who made it is lost.
These themes are echoed in Dough, a short film set in a strange factory in which women use their bodies to create a strange, flesh-like dough. Again, the end product is not important; it’s the part each person plays on the assembly line. Bodies take on the role of machines once again echoing the idea that products are inseparable from their makers.
This all makes a claustrophobic world where the work is tough and without rewards; however it stands in contrast to another short film, Tropical Breeze in which a female body builder delivers boxes of fruit juice while drinking it herself. She then wipes her lemon-infused perspiration onto tissues which are marketed as ‘lemon-scented moist tissue’. There is a sense of real power here not only in the physical form of the body builder and her acrobatic colleague but also in the way she is able to consume and manufacture products, putting her firmly in control of the process.
Alongside Rottenberg’s exhibition is a gallery devoted to the satirical cartoons of James Gillray (1756 – 1815) which are on loan from the V&A. Pompous, puffed up politicians, European relations and the scandals that permeated both high and low society will certainly resonate with modern audiences – and his deft sketches are delightfully comic.
The two exhibitions, which are free, run until 1st July.