Rustling paper, the crackle of frying food, a whispering voice, beads rubbing together: These are some of the sounds that can induce the brain-tingling sensation known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R. These kinds of noises are also ubiquitous in the strange and alluring recent videos in Mika Rottenberg’s “Easypieces,” which takes its title from Richard P. Feynman’s book “Six Easy Pieces” (1994): his introduction to the fundamentals of physics for general audiences.
The centerpiece of this show at the New Museum, which was curated by Margot Norton, is “Spaghetti Blockchain” (2019), a 21-minute video that ricochets among warbling Tuvan throat singers in Siberia, the CERN antimatter factory in Switzerland, a potato farm in Maine and an imaginary manufacturer of A.S.M.R. products. In addition to bright colors and bristling, popping and whirring sounds, the video also relies on classically Surrealist, dreamlike scenarios. The idea of matter, and the relationship between animate and inanimate objects, purports to be at its core, although this is a bit lost in the A.S.M.R. sensorium and the excess of sound and color that has come to characterize Ms. Rottenberg’s work.
Another video here, “NoNoseKnows (Artist Variant),” from 2012, features the 6-foot-4 fetish performer who calls herself Bunny Glamazon, sitting in a windowless room above a Chinese pearl factory, smelling bouquets of flowers until her eyes water and her nose grows to Pinocchio-like proportions. Here again, absurd actions and juxtapositions reign, reminding you of the famous statement by the French writer Isidore Ducasse, better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, which was adopted by the Surrealists: “Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
The much shorter video “Sneeze” (2012) depicts men in business suits sneezing out rabbits or hunks of meat, while “Cosmic Generator (Tunnel Variant),” from 2017, pivots on another unlikely pairing: a Chinese restaurant in the Mexican city of Mexicali and a wholesale market in Yiwu, China. Amped-up sensory details and oddities, like the colorful objects crammed into the market, shape the core of this video.
What to make of it all? A few decades ago, experimental film and video art were famous for being hard to watch — rigorous endurance tests that weeded out committed art viewers from pedestrian browsers. (Touchstones include Joan Jonas’s 1972 “Vertical Roll,” in which the artist jumped up and down in tandem with a jarring metallic noise — the sound of a spoon hitting a surface — and Michael Snow’s 1967 “Wavelength,” which homes in on a single image for 45-minutes.) Ms. Rottenberg works in the opposite direction, seducing the viewer with curious sounds and images and slapstick behavior.
Her videos often seem to copy the frenzied, candy-colored ones of Pipilotti Rist, who had a survey in this museum in 2016. Like Ms. Rist, Ms. Rottenberg originally focused on gender and how women are targeted as consumers and remake themselves as consumable objects. The work of these artists signaled a distinct shift from the cool, “cerebral” tapes of early video art, but also championed the realm of feeling that was historically characterized as “female” — and considered not as important as intellect. To some extent, these traits are still in Ms. Rottenberg’s art (A.S.M.R. is an overwhelmingly female phenomenon), although her recent videos also try to be more universal by promoting “matter” over “feeling.”
The importance of Ms. Rottenberg’s work is that it gives equal weight to the invisible but potent sensations that we all experience as humans and that drive our lives, culture and politics. The zaniness can get tiresome, however, since she is trying to create museum-worthy art that outstrips what you might find on YouTube — and not always succeeding.
The videos are accompanied by simple, silly sculptures emerging from holes in the wall, like a flipping ponytail or a manicured index finger. These objects owe a huge debt to Robert Gober, who created sculptures of body parts extending from walls a few decades ago, during a period when artists were also obsessed with the uncanny, an idea popularized by Freud.
Ms. Rottenberg, who was born in Argentina but lives in New York, relies a bit too much on people from distant cultures to conjure her scalp-tingling weirdness. In the old days, Freud described the uncanny as the “familiar made unfamiliar”; here, instead, are Chinese workers and Tuvan singers who feel like objects of comedy.
But if changing your psychic and emotional energy field, as A.M.S.R. reportedly does, is Ms. Rottenberg’s intent, she excels at it. Visiting the restroom in the basement in a post-exhibition haze, I found myself both dazzled and flummoxed by the pastel tiles and the faulty automatic water faucet. It felt as if I were inside one of Ms. Rottenberg’s videos, with the same stark lighting and dreamlike extension of time. The uncanniness of her videos had penetrated my nervous system.
It was also one of those deeply personal moments that A.S.M.R. aficionados struggled to identify before A.S.M.R. became a mass phenomenon on YouTube. This under-the-skin-effect of Ms. Rottenberg’s recent work might be its most successful aspect, identifying what we experience in our bodies and conveying this to others in a world where we’re supposedly “connected” by technology — yet subject to epidemics of alienation, loneliness, anxiety and depression.
Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces
Through Sept. 15 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan; 212-219-1222, newmuseum.org.