You may be confused by the title of this post. If so, then you know exactly how I felt after viewing Mika Rottenberg’s video installations at the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery earlier this week. First, however, let’s deal with the Regency bits – alongside Rottenberg’s videos, in the temperature-controlled surroundings of Gallery 4, the gallery had an exhibition of prints by the satirical cartoonist James Gillray, who was active in the decades leading up to the final acts of the Napoleonic Wars.
You could very easily describe Gillray as one of the forerunners of modern political cartoonists such as Steve Bell and Gerald Scarfe. The prints look complex, over-stuffed, and quite fussy in their own ways, and if you don’t know too much about the social or political history of the times then much of the content and detail is lost on the modern viewer, but there are several moments when Gillray’s satire perfectly reflects 21st Century society too. Here’s one, for example, where the government has levied lots of new taxes to fund the
war against terrorism war for oil Napoleonic Wars(1). Another, on the same theme, illustrates John Bull floundering under a wave of new taxes while politicians of the day, depicted as cormorants, pick juicy golden fish from the sea (2). Plus ca change.
Oh, and here’s a rotund bishop, disguised as a hot air balloon, dispensing wisdom from the skies…(3) Again, not much has changed in the last 200 years, has it?
There’s quite a surreal element to some of these prints, and nearly all of them are coloured, heightening that sense of the ridiculous. You can see why, when a fresh Gillray print was displayed in his publisher’s shop window, people would crowd around to look. It’s also notable that even back then the subjects of this satire seemed to know it was better to be satirised than to be ignored (the Prince of Wales collected Gillray’s work, even though he himself was lampooned as a corpulent, dissolute brat).
Though many of Gillray’s prints can be seen on t’interwebz these days (a simple image search brings them up, and I’ve justpicked a few of my favourites here), it’s definitely worth seeing them up close and personal. They’re at the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery until July 1st.
As are the multimedia installations of Mika Rottenberg. Rachel loved these; I had something of a WTF?!? moment. No, I had several WTF?!? moments. Rottenberg creates film loops that revolve around the mundanity and banality of life, seen especially from the point of view of low-paid female workers, and gives them surrealistic dreamlike qualities that make you wish you hadn’t had that smoked cheese last night. To cap it off, the films are shown in tight, claustrophobic “viewing machines” that make you feel uneasily like a voyeur (one film was actually only visible through a peephole built into the wall). This reaches its apotheosis with the installation “Cheese”, where you are surrounded, inside a ramshackle building, by half a dozen video sources. This one did my nut in. As did the one called “Sneeze”, in which a trio of bulbously-nosed men sneeze rabbits, hunks of meat, and lightbulbs onto a table. For some reason I can’t find a photo to illustrate that one, so here’s a picture from the installation “Cheese” instead.
Going through the exhibition notes, I see that Rottenberg “deliberately confuses Marx’s idea of the commodity fetish, where products are designed to hide the labour that has gone into them, and Freud’s idea of the sexual fetish”.
“The driving force of capitalism is fiction,” Rottenberg says… “I wanted…to show that reality is as bizarre as my own fiction.” I can’t argue with that. From my own point of view (which is that of a colour-blind layman who gave up art as a bad job at GCSE level), these are extraordinary pieces of work that have a real subversive undercurrent as much as they are filled with genuine humour. I really can’t recommend you watch all of them in one sitting, however.