Mika Rottenberg’s film No Nose Knows, a highlight of the Arsenale in OkwuiEnwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale, returns to China (it was shot in the coastal areas of Zhejiang) in this small exhibition in Beijing. Touching on the pearl industry, empty housing developments, and the absurd gestures of the everyday, Rottenberg considers her piece a “diagram of our shrinking world.” This is remarkably accurate, and the diagram happens to also be a diagram of the museum in which it is exhibited: the projection of the film is housed in a small, purpose-built theater situated in an otherwise empty expansive exhibition hall. Half the fun of the viewing experience lies in sneaking out and exploring the empty nooks and crannies of the museum. Opening on an intensely smoggy winter night and most easily accessed by shuttle bus from the city, the project seems to mirror the meanderings of Rottenberg’s protagonist, whose electric wheelchair twists and winds its way through vacant middle-class housing compounds.
So far all of this rings relatively true, and seems to lie within the boundaries of the sardonic magical realism that entrances Chinese artists like Cheng Ran and Huang Ran. But then there are race and class dynamics that take over the film: the young, female workers cultivating pearls on an assembly line take sustenance of noodles that are sneezed out of the massive nose of their obese manager, which seems to grow as she inhales the scents of the shellfish. Elevated levels of absurdity save the work from collapsing into an unaware parody of the post-colonial dynamics between artists from centers and the art worlds of the peripheries that fascinate them. As a first foray into a new cultural space, Rottenberg’s project succeeds in that it extends her existing filmic universe; as a parody of the institutional spaces in which it is framed, it becomes something much more.
Sishang Art Museum, Beijing