VIS­UAL ART: Mika Rot­ten­berg’s Squeeze and Anri Sala’s The Last Re­sort.

In two works – a video in­stal­la­tion by Mika Rot­ten­berg in Melbourne and a site-spe­cific work in Syd­ney by Anri Sala – Pa­trick Har­ti­gan sees how in­con­gru­ous im­agery can re­veal the ab­sur­dity of the forces to which we un­think­ingly sub­mit.

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The sense of sus­pense in the video in­stal­la­tion Squeeze (2010), the ten­sion and rhythm, re­lates to an elab­o­rate and non­sen­si­cal fabri­ca­tion that is more con­vinc­ing than the re­al­ity it feeds off. The work, by Mika Rot­ten­berg, is on view un­til De­cem­ber 16 in an ex­hi­bi­tion called

The Hu­mours, cu­rated by Han­nah Mathews, at Monash Univer­sity Mu­seum of Art (MUMA).

Cer­tain art ex­pe­ri­ences come to mind here: the writ­ings of David Fos­ter Wal­lace, the paint­ings of Hierony­mus Bosch, the 1971 ver­sion of Willy Wonka & the Choco­late Fac­tory. In each of these cases, fic­tion is a peep­hole through which to view the var­i­ous go­ings-on of re­al­ity, as if for the first time, and therein dis­cover the hi­lar­i­ties and hal­lu­ci­na­tions we’ve been pre­pro­grammed to ac­cept as “rea­son­able” and “nor­mal”.

The cen­tral com­po­nent of Squeeze is a 20-minute video. Out­side the view­ing room for this video is a large­for­mat pho­to­graph and cus­toms dec­la­ra­tion, pro­vid­ing ad­denda through which to fur­ther re­flect on the video’s con­tent.

The fo­cal point of it – a hacked mess of let­tuce, rouge, rub­ber and body mat­ter – mys­ti­fies while lat­terly help­ing to clar­ify what this work is fun­da­men­tally about: the va­garies of value. Around this strange miscellany, an elab­o­rate, makeshift sweat­shop shifts and grinds like a hu­man-scale Ru­bik’s cube. Sec­tions and depart­ments ro­tate; doors and hatches open and shut. Ev­ery­thing moves to­wards the goal of prod­uct with grim de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Rot­ten­berg has said that the work be­gan af­ter din­ing at a restau­rant where she eaves­dropped on a salad bro­ker and learnt about the con­stantly fluc­tu­at­ing value of ice­berg let­tuce. Then there was a sen­sa­tion – that of trees squeez­ing out rub­ber – and the idea of “choosey­our-own salad bars”.

The work de­liv­ers a smor­gas­bord of pe­cu­liars: tongues and bot­toms pok­ing through walls, peas­ant la­tex farm­ers in­sert­ing their arms down holes in the ground to be cooled by a sub­ter­ranean par­lour of wa­ter-squirters and but­tocks-sweat-har­vesters. There is a re­cur­ring scene of a woman – in her main role re­sem­bling a coin col­lec­tor out­side a post-East­ern

Bloc toi­let block – be­ing squeezed by the cush­ioned, com­press­ing studwork of a wall.

Oddly enough, none of this seems so strange as to not po­ten­tially be real. This is due to the way each con­stituent, how­ever bizarre, re­lates so con­vinc­ingly and log­i­cally to the whole. Like Willy Wonka and the free-mar­ket econ­omy in which we live – both of these re­ly­ing on in­vis­i­ble feats of en­durance while gov­erned by phan­tom hi­er­ar­chies that squeeze and re­lease the world’s pop­u­la­tion – Rot­ten­berg’s sys­tem presents an enigma that some­how holds to­gether.

Af­ter watch­ing the video, I re­turned to the pho­to­graph. It showed New York art dealer Mary Boone look­ing some­what like a duty-free sales­per­son while proudly hold­ing a cube of salad mys­tery. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing cus­toms dec­la­ra­tion doc­u­ments the item as: “Fine art (1 cu­bic foot); veg­etable mat­ter, Pure La­tex Cream (PLC); cos­met­ics.” Hav­ing been di­vorced from its cy­cle of labour, the cel­e­brated ob­ject – val­ue­less and po­ten­tially very valu­able – has been sent to the Cay­man Is­lands and “stored in per­pe­tu­ity”.

I could hear Ms Boone, be­hind her hol­low and stead­fast eyes, say­ing: “Light­weight and tax free.”

Rot­ten­berg has said of her in­ter­ests and process: “It’s not just vis­ual, it’s en­er­getic. It’s about try­ing to lo­cate feel­ing that has no shape.” The de­tails of Squeeze might be strange but the shapes and cur­rents run­ning through it are all too fa­mil­iar. Video in this artist’s hands proves to be the ideal medium – in all senses of that word – through which to chan­nel and trans­late the eco­nomic and so­cial forces gov­ern­ing hu­man life, forces con­stantly felt but ul­ti­mately too ab­surd to give di­rect voice.

Anri Sala’s The Last Re­sort (2017), a site-spe­cific work in the ro­tunda on Syd­ney’s Ob­ser­va­tory Hill, clos­ing Sun­day, marks the 33rd in­stal­ment of Kal­dor Public Art Projects.

From the grassy slopes of Ob­ser­va­tory Hill, with wa­ter all around, there can be the feel­ing of be­ing on an is­land. Sala’s work en­gages this phys­i­cal set­ting against the his­tor­i­cal back­drop of the En­light­en­ment, the pe­riod in which sci­en­tific knowl­edge be­came key, Aus­tralia was de­scribed by white ex­plor­ers, and Mozart wrote his Clar­inet Con­certo in A Ma­jor (1791).

Sala was in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing “the rift and en­su­ing con­tra­dic­tion be­tween the de­par­ture point of some re­mark­able prin­ci­ples of the En­light­en­ment – such as tol­er­ance and a non-judge­men­tal ac­cep­tance of the other – and their fall­outs on ar­rival, ex­ac­er­bat­ing prej­u­dices, which in turn caused un­told dev­as­ta­tion and loss”.

A col­lec­tion of snare drums and at­tached drum­sticks, hang­ing from the ceil­ing of the ro­tunda up­side down and some­what bat-like, clev­erly in­verts the out­wardly fo­cused gaze of the En­light­en­ment and those tele­scopes in the neigh­bour­ing ob­ser­va­tory. From sep­a­rate speak­ers in­side the drums we re­ceive two gently rift­ing and merg­ing streams: the well-known, im­mac­u­lately

poised ada­gio from Mozart’s score and that of the weather, as trans­lated from the di­ary of James Bell, a sailor aboard a ship trav­el­ling from Eng­land to Ade­laide in 1838.

With­out prior knowl­edge of this, it’s easy to in­ter­pret, at least ini­tially and on a breezy day, that what one is hear­ing is a piece of mu­sic in­ter­fered with by the sur­round­ing wind. This sen­si­tiv­ity to the land­scape and dis­junc­ture be­tween im­me­di­ate and me­di­ated ex­pe­ri­ences is what makes The Last Re­sort suc­ceed. In his cat­a­logue es­say, Ross Gib­son points out the mul­ti­tudi­nous­ness of tempo cir­cu­lat­ing these shores:

“The var­i­ous cul­tures co­hab­it­ing here de­fine and re­mem­ber his­tory in rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ways, such that Time here draws along no sim­ple, sin­gle line. In­stead it sloshes, in­ter­mixes, over­laps and never set­tles.”

Me­tre and me­te­o­rol­ogy sur­face in Sala’s work, so as to al­low it to gently drift into and out of its sur­round­ings. I found it worth­while walk­ing around the is­land hill, even pop­ping into the ob­ser­va­tory where the col­lect­ing and or­der­ing prac­tices of the En­light­en­ment are on rich dis­play. This helps to bring the sub­tlety of Sala’s in­ter­ven­tion into fo­cus, one that resists ex­pla­na­tion or any sim­plis­tic con­stru­ing of his­tory.

With ears pricked, I wan­dered the stairs and al­ley­ways to­wards Cir­cu­lar Quay. Along the way, Mozart faded into Jimmy Barnes’s “Work­ing Class Man” (1985): He’s a sim­ple man

With a heart of gold

OUR AT­TEN­TION IS BROUGHT TO LA­TENT PO­LIT­I­CAL AND SO­CIAL FORCES, WITH SEN­SI­TIV­ITY

AND DISPASSION RATHER THAN EMO­TION AND BRUTE FORCE.

In a com­pli­cated land

Oh he’s a work­ing class man

The mu­sic came from the deck of a mas­sive cruise ship be­fore giv­ing way to a cho­rus of jack­ham­mers.

It was cu­ri­ous to sud­denly be so aware of time and so­cial and po­lit­i­cal strata through hear­ing. The strength of a work of art can re­late to its catalysing of re­cep­tiv­ity as much as the ex­pe­ri­ence it gives you in a brief mo­ment of view­ing.

In both Squeeze and The Last Re­sort our at­ten­tion is brought to la­tent po­lit­i­cal and so­cial forces, with sen­si­tiv­ity and dispassion rather than emo­tion and brute force. Granted a few mo­ments out­side the vor­tex of daily pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, we are given the op­por­tu­nity to tune in to the cur­rents and con­tours de­ter­min­ing our shared and

• in­di­vid­ual voy­ages.

PA­TRICK HAR­TI­GAN is a Syd­ney­based artist.

A still from Mika Rot­ten­berg’s Squeeze, (above), and Anri Sala’s The Last Re­sort (fac­ing page).

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