This multimedia essay explores the connections between the 2019 exhibition “Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces” and archival material from the New Museum’s exhibition history through the framework of artists who engage with issues of labor, circulation, and gender in their work. Exhibitions cited are: Trade Routes (1993), A Labor of Love (1996), and Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World (2000).
In Mika Rottenberg’s 2015 video NoNoseKnows, pearls are made; not just through the natural processes involving oysters and irritants but also through the surreal Taylorized labor of women—slicing and suturing but also consuming and expelling—where their own bodies and mucus membranes are as integral to the outcome as the mollusks themselves. Rottenberg shot the scene in an actual cultured pearl factory in Zhuji, China; the women gathered in long assembly lines on either side of tables are not professional actors but professional workers performing their everyday labor in Rottenberg’s skewed and squeezed version of real life. As they open oyster shells, slicing into wet flesh and applying small slivers of iridescent foreign shell matter to inspire pearl growth, a blonde Caucasian woman sits at a desk in a windowless room above them, surrounded by shelves of shrink-wrapped flowers, a fan, and a teetering mountain of plates of food. 1
With alarmingly sticky and articulated sound, the woman reaches up and selects a bouquet, placing it into a murky bowl of water mounted onto a wooden platform above the desk’s surface. She moisturizes her hands, and then flicks at a little golden bell by her knee. At the sound of the bell, a woman seated at the oyster table one floor below begins to wind a wooden hand crank that in Rube-Goldbergian fashion turns a rope pulley upstairs triggering the fan, which then blows pollen from the mounted flowers directly into the blonde women’s swollen face. The woman’s red nose throbs and lengthens, the tip shiny and bulging, until eventually she begins to sneeze: with each expulsion, plate after plate of noodles appears on the desk in front of her—red sauce, pesto, meatballs, chow mein—which she absently adds to the growing pile to her right.
Elsewhere, another woman—alone in a damp, dark, and cavernous space—hacks at mature oysters with a cleaver, scooping out the cultured pearls with her gloved hands and placing them into a plastic bucket. Enormous and vaguely anthropomorphic bubbles filled with smoke wobble aimlessly in strange, empty office rooms. Women, white-coated and whirring on the assembly line, sort the clean pearls according to uniformity and color. One of these workers naps at her table, her feet submerged in a bucket of pearls, which inexplicably reappears upside-down in the sneezing blonde manager’s office, soles and toes sprouting upward like a houseplant.
These improbable physical and sensorial relationships constitute the logic of Rottenberg’s worlds of labor and commodity circulation. In these sprawling yet often oppressively closed systems, organic bodies (the women, the oysters) are locked into strange repetitive processes of production. The suturing of irritants into the flesh of oysters is a primed-for-efficiency, capitalist version of a naturally occurring phenomenon; while the pollen, another kind of irritant, is a catalyst for the blonde manager’s nasal response. The underlying assumption is that the allergic-reaction noodles are somehow fuel for the laboring bodies downstairs, but at the end of the day, the pure absurdity of the system’s logic points more to the system itself rather than to the particular commodities that are produced and circulated within it.
In Rottenberg’s body of work, themes of labor and circulation are put into conversation with gendered bodies through her creation of these strange systems of production. Rottenberg regularly employs nontraditional actors, preferring instead to work with women who have found ways to capitalize on the value and ownership of their own bodies—women with rare blood types who sell their own blood, fetish performers, and extreme weight lifters who monetize desire on their own terms. Her worlds are often populated by bodies that push the boundaries of normative physicality (extremely large, tall, strong, or flexible). Even more frequently, the commodities produced in Rottenberg’s videos are fundamentally linked to bodily production—sneezing, sweating, and nail clipping become the necessary actions of Taylorized labor, stuck somewhere between innate bodily reactions and rationalized repetitive motions in the service of capital.
More recent videos and installations by Rottenberg morph into explorations of global commodity circulation, the expanded systems of production, desire, and surplus that connect disparate and distant bodies, communities, and countries. In Cosmic Generator (2017), a tunnel links a Chinese restaurant at the border of Mexico and California to a market full of cramped and overflowing vendor booths in China, like a childhood fantasy of digging straight through the ground from one curve of the earth to the other. Here, plastic tchotchkes, strings of Christmas lights, and fake food are linked to histories of migration and national identity, invoking a contrast between the apparent freedom of global movement for cheap stuffed animals and plastic flowers, and the cruel scarcity of that same freedom for certain human beings.
Primarily focusing on women’s labor within her evolving explorations of capital, material, and circulation, Rottenberg’s art, according to Marina Vishmidt, posits “a synthesis between the kinds of work done by women (repetitive, devalued, invisible) and abstract labor as the condition of capitalist work (and art) in general.” 2 In this way, Rottenberg’s body of work resonates with a history of artists making visible the undervalued labor often relegated to the spheres of the domestic or the sweatshop.
In the history of New Museum programming, numerous solo and survey exhibitions have featured women artists whose creative practices aim to mine the concepts of labor and commodity circulation within broader societal and political systems that determine value and visibility. Many of these artists— like Regina Frank, Liza Lou, and Martha Rosler—used their own bodies to blur the boundaries between domestic or private forms of labor and the labor performed in artmaking. Ranging from traditional craft to advanced computer technologies, performance, installation, and video, these projects show the enduring manifestations of the undervalued labor of women, even as systems of global capitalism rapidly evolve.
In Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows, pearls are the commodity-in-production around which various forms of labor are intertwined. In Regina Frank’s 1993 New Museum performance and installation, L’Adieu: Pearls Before Gods, pearls figure at the other end of the chain of commodity production, this time as a good with which labor produces another luxury product. As part of the group exhibition “Trade Routes” (1993), Frank’s performance took place over twenty-eight days in the small window alcove of the New Museum’s 583 Broadway building building, where she sat during the Museum’s opening hours every day for a month, meticulously sewing pearls onto a plain white silk gown mounted onto a dress form.
Each day, Frank would select a different international average hourly wage for a seamstress, ranging from $17.10/hour in Norway to just $0.20/hour in Indonesia.3 The various rates and corresponding countries were displayed on a scrolling LED screen at the top of the window, and at the end of each day, Frank bought bread and flowers with her “wages” to demonstrate the respective shifts in purchasing power (the number of bread loaves and flowers stayed the same while the quality of each differed dramatically). As the performance progressed, bread and flowers accumulated inside the window alcove alongside Frank, the dress form, and the buckets of pearls she used each day.
Also part of “Trade Routes” was artist Laura Kurgan, whose project Interface: Information Overlay (1993), incorporated a CCTV system that recorded Frank as she worked, broadcasting the footage on small monitors mounted in the upper corners of the window. Kurgan’s Interface project was intended to “evoke the space inside the global information network,” connecting the disparate architectural spaces of the exhibition through a series of networked cameras, Heads Up Displays (HUDs), and video monitors. 4 During the hours and days she was no longer physically there, Kurgan’s intervention functioned as a kind of echo of Frank’s labor, creating a sense of perpetual presence which curator Laura Trippi would later describe as a “haunting.” 5
Fellow artist Faith Wilding, who exhibited alongside Frank in the 1995 Bronx Museum exhibition “Division of Labor: ‘Women’s Work’ in Contemporary Art, wrote of Frank’s 1995 performance Hermes’ Mistress :
A ghost lurks in this machine: the ghost of women’s unseen (alienated) work in the global garment and electronics sweatshops—the new “homework economy”—which parallels that of the domestic and factory sweatshop. [Donna] Haraway points out that “women in Third World countries are the preferred labor force for science-based multinationals in the export-processing sectors, particularly in electronics.” Yet access to computers, the Internet, and advanced electronic communications and services is still largely restricted to First World businesses, academics, and middle class professionals and their kids, and electronic technology is still popularly regarded as a male province. Here then, we have the classically alienated position of women producing things which they themselves will never have access to buying or using.6
By connecting the way in which “traditional” women’s labor (sewing, domestic work, child-rearing) shares with the global technology market a common capitalist structure of gendered oppression, Wilding situates Frank’s body of work in a larger conversation beyond that of women’s labor as historically relegated only to textiles or other forms of handicraft.
These larger questions about circulation and production within the global marketplace of the 1990s was at the core of the “Trade Routes” exhibition. 7 Curators Laura Trippi, Gina Dent, and Saskia Sassen brought together a group of international artists whose projects all dealt in some capacity with the consequences of economic globalization. Touching on themes of technology, “underdeveloped” versus “developed” countries, tourism, trade, and immigration, the exhibition featured performance, video installation, architectural design, new media, and sculpture from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, the Ivory Coast, Germany, Korea, Cuba, the Middle East, Venezuela, and Russia. For the three curators, “Trade Routes” intended to push back on notions of globalization’s supposed flattening effects, highlighting instead how artistic practice could reveal distinct and culturally specific systems of identity, labor, and value. In an essay for the exhibition brochure, Gina Dent elaborates:
Globalization works through a language of cultural difference, while at the same time domesticating that difference through our increasing familiarity with the look of otherness. …. [But] how can an artist work in gold or porcelain, rope or muslin, silk or pearls, without acknowledging the memory of these materials? When trade is the issue at hand, how can one think of bodies without thinking of who has handled, trafficked in them? 8
Liza Lou, Kitchen, in “A Labor of Love,” 1996
Organized by New Museum founding director Marcia Tucker in 1996, the group exhibition “A Labor of Love,” posed the question of labor’s relationship to the perceived differences in value between “high art” and “craft.” Bringing together amateur fine artists, expert craftspeople, and professional artists working with mediums traditionally categorized as craft, the exhibition as a whole asked visitors to reflect on why certain creative practices had historically been valued one way (sophisticated, beautiful, historically significant), while others were relegated as marginal in terms of those values dominant in white Eurocentric spaces (the “outsider artist,” the Indigenous craft, the domestic).
One artist in “A Labor of Love” exhibited an installation that spoke to the tensions within the craft-high art dichotomy explicitly through gender, taking up what is traditionally considered women’s labor as both the work required to create the installation and as the finished form of the installation itself. Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1991–96), which took five years to complete, was a life-size recreation of a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot domestic kitchen made entirely of beads. Complete with every aspect of a quintessential suburban kitchen—stove, fridge, woodgrain cabinets, toaster, table with tablecloth, tiled backsplash, and lacy curtains—Lou also included elements of specific detail that signaled to the installation’s purpose as evidence of a mammoth creative act and one invested in parsing the signs of gendered labor.
Besides the room and the appliances, Lou’s Kitchen included a notepad on the fridge door, a sink filled with dishes, a faucet with a beaded stream of sudsy water, bottles of Comet and Joy dish soap at the edge of the sink, a 1990s-style “nutritious” breakfast laid out on the kitchen table (complete with Frosted Flakes, Cap’n Crunch, a carton of milk, a bowl of cereal, a plate of buttered toast, a jar of jam, and a tin of freshly baked muffins), an open recipe book and stand mixer (full of beaded chocolate cake batter), an open oven with a fresh cherry pie cooling on the rack, a frying pan with eggs done sunny-side up, a broom and dustpan, a box of Tide detergent, and on the counter, a bag of Ruffles and a six-pack of Budweiser beer. On the kitchen table, a fictional newspaper called Global News triumphantly proclaimed: “HOUSEWIFE BEADS THE WORLD!”; and in slightly smaller text below read: “PLUS: FROGMAN REVEALS THE SECRETS OF TOUGH LOVE!”
As Tucker wrote in the exhibition catalogue, Lou’s Kitchen is a prime example of how gendered hierarchies of labor that exist in everyday life are equally embedded into the history of Western art and creative practice:
Nineteenth-century women were excluded from formal art schools and training, and the art they made—quilting, embroidery, knitting, sewing, crocheting and the like—was relegated to the domestic, the useful, and the everyday rather than the sublime and exalted spheres of high art. These same distinctions and hierarchies of value are still at work in the museums and art markets of the world. Many of the same skills employed to make the handcrafted, or highly detailed, or labor-intensive and time-consuming pieces in A Labor of Love have traditionally been considered women’s work. Because they were made within the domestic rather than the public sphere, were done for love rather than money, or were simply done by women (deemed incapable of creating great art), these handicrafts were ipso facto inferior to fine art—made in the public sphere for money by men. It followed that in the world of crafts, embroidery had a lower status because of its unique identification with the feminine.9
In direct opposition to these associations, and even in opposition to the auras of gendered labor inscribed into her own work, Lou defiantly celebrates the time-intensive, craft-based elements of her monumental beaded installation. “HOUSEWIFE BEADS THE WORLD!” blares the newspaper headline on the kitchen table, effectively situating the creation of Lou’s Kitchen as an internationally noteworthy event. The particular headline’s placement above the fold on the front page of this fictional newspaper at first glance makes Lou’s labor comparable to what one would normally expect to find in serious, worldly, top-billing news: political elections, military action, natural disasters. And yet, pairing the headline with the far more tabloid-esque one below—“FROGMAN REVEALS THE SECRETS OF TOUGH LOVE!” —cleverly doubles the reading, celebrating Kitchen also as a kind of sensationalized anomaly, one of extremity and abnormality in a world where this form of female labor (both the beading and the housebound domestic) tends not to be recognized at all.
Framed by these headlines, Kitchen and the labor involved in its creation is both a colossal feminist achievement and a freakish one-off. As Marcia Tucker notes in her catalogue essay for the exhibition, “Lou was asked by someone, clearly overcome at seeing her beaded kitchen, ‘When do you find the time to do all this?,‘” as if it were impossible to imagine that her artistic labor could be valued and understood outside of the realms of leisure, hobby, or the extracurricular.10 By pairing the achievement of Kitchen with the fantastical nonsense of “Frogman’s secrets revealed,” Lou is essentially winking at the potential proto-clickbait reading of her work, pointing at societal attraction to surface-level sparkle that breathlessly celebrates the existence of the completed work even while inherently diminishing a deeper consideration of the issues of labor and gender involved in its making.
Martha Rosler, “Positions in the Life World,” 2000
Since the late 1970s, Martha Rosler has been a pioneering feminist artist, especially across the fields of video, photomontage/collage, and performance. Her work addresses how gender, labor, and visibility are encoded into different spheres of life, including private domestic space, public space, advertising, and the media. Interested in urgent social and political issues, Rosler’s body of work also speaks to American geopolitical incursions and military invasions in foreign countries, architecture and homelessness, and global consumer culture.
Her exhibition “Positions in the Life World” traveled from Vienna’s Generali Foundation and the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, to the New Museum in 2000, where it marked the first major retrospective of Rosler’s work in New York City. Featuring over two dozen videos, numerous installations, photomontage series, and performance pieces, “Positions” presented a timely opportunity for the New Museum to reflect on its history of progressive exhibition programming at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Echoing Liza Lou, Rosler shrewdly cites the kitchen as a loaded and multivalent space for art to engage in powerful critique. Both Lou and Rosler’s works keep the work and the women “in the kitchen” while subtly shifting the dynamics of the performed labor—in Lou’s case, transforming undervalued work into excess and luxury; in Rosler’s, transforming the seemingly innocuous and everyday into violence and discomfort.
A similar impulse is at work in Rosler’s photomontage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, from 1967 to 72.12 In these works, Rosler responded to increased American military intervention in Vietnam by suturing together magazine spreads of luxury domestic interiors and violent photojournalistic imagery of soldiers, injured Vietnamese citizens, and displaced refugees. This series, featured in “Positions in the Life World,” was updated by Rosler in 2004 and shown again at the New Museum in 2008 as part of the group exhibition “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture.”
In the later edition, Rosler turned her attention to a more recent military incursion. Addressing the allied coalition invasion of Iraq, these photo-collages highlight the differences in media and advertising styles between the 1970s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, but even more starkly demonstrate the harrowing continuities of violence, apathy, and capitalism in American culture. With its seamless suturing of idyllic domestic interiors and the fire, blood, anguish, and injury documented in Iraq , the 2004 edition of House Beautiful is perhaps more subtle in its commentary on gender and domestic labor. In the original 1970s series, images of women performing housework figure more prominently, as in the collage Cleaning the Drapes, where an elegantly coiffed young woman demonstrates an newfangled portable vacuum by pulling back a swath of heavily embroidered curtains to reveal a war-torn landscape of foxholes and sandbags.
In the 2004 series, gender and labor are presented more subversively through the language of beauty, fashion, and public representation. Rather than housewives and kitchens, a model catwalks through a flaming penthouse; a starlet poses for her own cellphone photo in a satin mini-dress while corpses decorate sleek furnishings. The mediated and commercial representations of women that Rosler chooses to integrate into her collisions of violence, aspiration, and divided attention are still performing labor—but labor that values only the appearance of the female body and its ability to act as a vehicle for advertising other commodities.
And yet the space of the domestic, and the ostensible trappings of privacy that come along with it, have always been a core interest for Rosler. In a 2017 interview with the Getty she stated that the House Beautiful series:
…. grew out of my thoughts about representations of women. And it very much takes on a question of the home. And, if you will, the militarization of the home as the flip side of the war. We may posit that the home is “a haven in a heartless world,” to use a Victorian phrase. But, in fact, it’s as much part of the war machine in the maintenance and reproduction of the soldiers, the society, the work force, as the battlefield itself. So, I see this as absolutely stemming from a feminist critique of the way we think of daily life and the various realms and tasks that are assigned to different genders. The home and the war go together. The space in which women are given dominion is nevertheless the space in which the war is conceptually located. 13
As with the House Beautiful series, Rosler’s work has always been particularly invested in exploring spaces where the supposed “haven” of the home and its gender dynamics spill out into the public world. As a student at University of California San Diego in the 1970s, Rosler first conceptualized the Monumental Garage Sale project, conceiving the work as an installation, performance, and participatory action that would have numerous evolutions over time. In 1973, the first Garage Sale was held at UCSD’s student gallery, inspired by Rosler’s move to the West Coast, where the more prominent phenomenon of the suburban garage sale grabbed her attention. For Rosler, the most intriguing aspect was the way in which the domestic bled into the public sphere under the auspices of commerce:
As a city dweller, I had never heard of [garage sales] until I moved to Southern California, where they are a highly popular, even beloved, pastime. Coming from a culture in which one donates unwanted items to charity or sells them on the street I saw the garage sale as a portrait in brief of a suburban society in which the hope of cashing in on cast-offs so that one might go out and consume again, led people unabashedly to expose their material lives to the scrutiny of others. I saw it as an art form of contemporary American society and determined to create such a sale in an art gallery. 14
For her Monumental Garage Sale, Rosler accumulated an enormous range of materials, everything from quintessential garage sale fare (used clothing, books, furniture, toys) to increasingly strange and highly personal items, including “private letters and photographs, baby shoes, underwear, used diaphragms, soft-core men’s magazines, as well as other abject, broken, and disused items.” 15 This combination of the acceptable and suspect would persist in all subsequent versions of Rosler’s Garage Sale installations, as would the particular arrangement of those items, overseen by Rosler, with the least desirable items hidden in the back or in dim lighting, and the most saleable shown up front. Additionally, Rosler was present at each iteration of Garage Sale, negotiating and haggling with the public who came to purchase items, adopting a kind of persona rather than make the work too closely autobiographical.
By 2000, when Monumental Garage Sale was installed at the New Museum as part of “Positions in the Life World,” the piece had been exhibited in across Europe and North America. While the first installation at UCSD resulted in a mixed group of participants, including both those who came to experience the work primarily as a garage sale and those who came to experience it as an artwork, by the twenty-first century the work’s legacy attracted a more homogenous set of visitors who anticipated the gallery or museum setting. 16 What remained constant, however, was Rosler’s ability to manifest an artistic act of labor that mirrored, or indeed nearly exactly replicated, the feminine-coded domestic labor of an everyday nature. Although what initially attracted Rosler to the concept of the garage sale was the visual reality of someone’s suburban home spilling out into the usually verboten public space for the benefit of some extra cash, what she quickly realized was that these sales were almost entirely organized and run by suburban women—mothers and housewives making the deliberate choice to offer their private realms up for sale.
Despite being spread across decades and engaging with widely varied creative tactics, the work of Rosler, Rottenberg, Frank, and Lou finds common ground in the importance of the visibility of the gendered labor—sometimes referred to as “maintenance work”—that generally is only useful to patriarchal capitalism the more invisible it is. 17 No matter how surreal, extravagant, or time-consuming the labor performed is, its most significant quality is that it is visually prioritized, seen because it is lifted out of the domestic, the sweatshop, or the artist’s studio.
Maggie Mustard, Ph.D.
Marcia Tucker Senior Research Fellow, New Museum of Contemporary Art
Published August 19, 2019.