Mika Rottenberg, Sneeze, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 2 seconds.

Mika Rottenberg, Sneeze, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 2 seconds.

Mika Rottenberg

Magasin III

Mika Rottenberg, Sneeze, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 2 seconds.

Mika Rottenberg is a serial absurdist, as amply demonstrated by her recent exhibition Sneeze to Squeeze,” which encompasses more than a decade of work. Take her most recent video, Sneeze, 2012. It’s a send-up, and simplicity itself: Three men in business suits, each with a farcically misshapen, pink-tinted nose, sneeze irrepressibly. These are men who have lost control, not only of their bodily reflexes but of the very substances their bodies expel. Each sneezing fit produces another unpredictable discharge: “Achoo!” and a bunny spews out; “Achoo!” and a steak emerges; “Achoo!” and a lightbulb somehow appears. The gag’s absurdist comedy has deep roots in literature and theater; Alice’s famous sneeze in Wonderland comes to mind, as does the oft-quoted rhyme from the Duchess, another Lewis Carroll character: “Speak roughly to your little boy / And beat him when he sneezes / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” As usual, however, reality trumps silliness. Steaks and bunnies aside, Rottenberg’s pathetic creatures exhibit the symptoms of the autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst (ACHOO) syndrome, which, believe it or not, was first observed by Aristotle in Problems, book XXXIII. (Look it up.) And yet this connection to reality, even real suffering—and perhaps poverty, since despite their suits the three men lack shoes—does not lessen the comedic effect. As Nell in Beckett’s Endgame reckons, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness. . . . It’s the most comical thing in the world.”

The farcically cyclical structure of Sneeze is embedded in all of Rottenberg’s work; she is fixated on producing the pointlessly mundane—whether sneezes or, in other works, things like maraschino cherries or “units of dough”—under the spell of unmanageable nonsense. This production is often played out in preposterously complex architectural settings, where tedious and inefficient parodies of assembly lines lock her characters into hopelessly repetitive scenarios. The characters, who often look as if they have walked out of a Fellini casting call, appear to have been chosen for their comic value as extreme physical types. There is Heather Foster, the professional bodybuilder in Tropical Breeze, 2004; Kathleen McIntyre, who at six feet, nine inches only barely fits into the set of Dough, 2005–2006; and the hard-wearing female wrestler Rock Rose, who in Mary’s Cherries, 2004, somehow forms the titular fruit out of clipped fingernails. An uncanny riddle about labor and consumption plays the tenor line in all of Rottenberg’s narratives; her characters’ useless efforts are pointlessly consumed to create an economy of pointless consumption.

Rottenberg shares a bit of rambunctiousness with the Bruce Nauman of Clown Torture, 1987, and Carousel, 1988, whose carny sideshow shenanigans are as entertaining as they are unsettling. But with this exhibition, she takes an unexpected step beyond that genre of serious fun-making to subtly reinforce her art by paradoxically drawing your attention away from figures and bodies to nearly unnoticeable props, for example a cheap ceiling fan glimpsed through a horizontal opening in one of the gallery walls. The fan, interminably purring between four walls covered in a repetitive and rugged texture, is absent from the exhibition checklist; is it merely playing an uncredited scenographic supporting role to Rottenberg’s art? The fan might leave you wondering what else you missed. Closer attention to the gallery space reveals such interventions as a darkened passage leading nowhere, really, as well as flowers placed nearly out of sight atop low-hanging ceiling tiles. While flowers and tiles are both memorable from Dough’s set design, their identity here, sitting amid the art, creates an ambiguous no-man’s-land. Such props play a sort of Greek chorus to the absurd action of Rottenberg’s videos, commenting, in a subtle but collective voice, on the tortuously convoluted dramas unfolding with the very same dramatic techniques used by the original Greek chorus: echo and synchronization. Harmonized with Rottenberg’s art, this inconspicuous stagecraft subliminally sharpens its humor and exacerbates its absurdity.

Ronald Jones