Left: Photo of art dealer Mary Boone holding her newest offering of art, a cube of refuse manufactured by Latin American and Indian workers seen in Mika Rottenberg's film Squeeze (2010). Right: Still from Squeeze depicting Chinese women massaging the feet of unseen manual laborers in a cramped hut outfitted with human buttocks on the wall behind them.
We don't have to be Trotskyites (remember Trotsky, anyone?) to see that Mika Rottenberg's provocative video Squeeze (2010) is problematic on a number of counts. The film has been promoted during its installation at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea as surveying the spread of feminist values in what we once complacently called The Third World--a demographic label fastly becoming a misnomer. But Rottenberg's film leaves much to be desired when considering the artist's own portrayal of women workers.
Visually, Rottenberg's depicton of a hyper-surrealist assembly line is simultaneously enthralling and repulsive, and in this regard owes much to Matthew Barney's eroticized and fetishistic films. With living human body parts (tongues, lips, and buttocks) protruding from walls, and absurd architectural constraints placed on the bodies of actors, Squeeze seems bereft only of Barney's profound mythopoetics. In its place we find Rottenberg attempting to critique the terms of women's labor throughout the world by employing a host of actresses from China, India, and Latin America playing common manual laborers. The manner in which Rottenberg strips the actresses of their humanity and reduces them to little more than objects recalls Vanessa Beecroft's ironic objectification of female models herded together in public spaces, minus Beecroft's artifice of glamor and pathological anorexia. But Rottenberg goes too far in her objectification. With Beecroft we never quite feel sorry for the assembly of professional models who are only subjected to nudity, wearing high heels, wigs, and makeup in a glamorous museum or gallery. But in Squeeze the actresses are degraded to the point of being subjected to freak-show servility, and we're made to feel for the actresses for having to endure such degradations imposed on them in the name of art.
I'm not referring to the circumstances behind the filmed event--circumstances we don't know. It's the space of the screen on which we witness the human subjects reduced to objects--reduced to the artist's medium, if you will--that defines the objectification and exploitation of human labor by the artist. For anyone can see that the objectification, degradation, and exploitation of humanity by multinational corporations that Rottenberg satirizes is, however unintentionally, being repeated by Rottenberg in the making of her film. We aren't merely watching an analogy to exploitation, we're watching an actual, if unwitting, exploitation of labor in the service to art.
Add to this the fact that Mika Rottenberg and Mary Boone stand to make considerable profit off sales of Rottenberg's Squeeze DV along with related art sales and commissions. Is there really any difference, then, between the relationship of the Chinese, Indian, and Latin American actresses to Rottenberg and Boone and the relationship of women workers of these same countries to the lettuce, rubber and makeup companies being implicated in the video? There is, of course, a difference: Rottenberg and Boone are selling SQUEEZE not to average, middle class consumers, but to the elite art collector, who by and large hails from the top .00001% of global earners. And they're not selling it at $19.99 a disc, but for some hefty amount approaching five-to-six figures.
To her credit, Rottenberg acknowledges the analogy of artmaking to industrial dehumanization in the photo on the gallery wall of Mary Boone holding a cube made from the refuse we watch being churned and regurgitated by the women workers of Squeeze. Then, too, gallery visitors are made to feel the discomfort of the workers as they herd within a boxed-in viewing station not unlike the cramped working huts we see on screen. But it's hard not to see this part of Rottenberg's parody of the global chain of production as also becoming what it critiques: a genuine display of hubris in her place at the top of the hierarchy between Third World workers of color and white Western entrepreneur.
All of this brings me to the question, what puts Rottenberg in the superior position of critiquing capitalists who exploit cheap foreign women's labor when she does the same? And if Rottenberg isn't critiquing the exploitation of labor, if she is merely drawing an analogy to it, does Squeeze then ever rise above being the freak show travesty Rottenberg makes it appear?
Ambiguity in art always makes moralizing a complicated affair. But today, moralizing on the conditions of global labor are made all the more complicated, what with the equation of exploitation no longer one easily classified (or stereotyped) as a condition of Western, white multinational interests pitted against the interests of multicolored, non-Western laborers. As global economies shift, the class inequalities become as domestic to India, Mexico, and China as to the U.S. and Europe. All of which makes Rottenberg's critique of the West's exploitation of cheap foreign labor in Squeeze, already dated.
It's hard staying aloft in the game of critical gazing when the conditions of the critique (and of the moral position of critiquing world conditions) are shifting so rapidly and remain so often out of view to even the expert pundit. Although artists count among the most keen observers of inequality, Rottenberg can't be counted among them so long as she employs and perpetuates the very conditions of exploitation she with all good intentions and fine aesthetic fashion exploits in the name of critiquing exploitation.
However entertaining and inventive Squeeze is, so long as Rottenberg remains part of the very production-consumer equation she portrays, she can't be placed within the history of serious political art that, from Francisco Goya to Hans Haacke, critiques the conditions and abuse of power and wealth. Until then, Rottenberg's art, like that of Fellini's more fantastic exercises, can be enjoyed for their richly-arrayed spectacles, state-of-the-art avant-gardist tropes, however deluded and ineffectual they are in their presumed political correctness.
Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.