Award-winning artist Mika Rottenberg talks to Vogue‘s Mackenzie Wagoner about how women’s beauty norms are shifting; the history of extraordinary hair growth and beauty practices in the U.S.; and why she’s more comfortable than ever with her unique beauty and style. Read the original post here.
If you ask Mika Rottenberg, conventional beauty isn’t actually as covetable as we believe. “I don’t think people are necessarily attracted to ideal beauty, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many kinds of websites for very large women, very tall women—that’s a huge subculture.” She should know. The NYC–based artist, who currently has a solo show at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, is best known for her video work driven by heroines with physical particularities, from extreme height to extreme hair length. “For me, beauty is about how they own and inhabit their body,” Rottenberg says. “If you’re conventionally beautiful, you constantly get approval. If you have an extraordinary body, you have to learn to feel comfortable in it—and it’s always inspiring to be comfortable in your own skin.”
Rather than trying to conform to an established ideal, Rottenberg’s subjects take a pride in their idiosyncrasies off of which they are able to make a profit, and sometimes even a living. The exceptional human beings featured in the videos in Rottenberg’s self-titled show—professional bodybuilders, the uber-flexible and fetish wrestlers for hire—have been cast from websites that “commodify their physical attributes and ultimately allow them to take ownership of their own objectification,” writes Wagoner. Rottenberg explains, “I don’t feel like they’re trying to fit into someone else’s system. I find that very powerful—it’s kind of misbehaving in a way.”
The definition of what’s beautiful has really expanded since I was growing up. There’s more room for rebellion.
Now transposed in front of Rottenberg’s lens, “these same women act out surrealist plotlines,” writes Wagoner, “forming human assembly lines in which imagined processes involving harvesting fingernails, washed hair and tears result in the production of everyday commodities like maraschino cherries or dough. The series ultimately raises questions of the value of labor, physical boundaries, beauty and ownership of the body.”
It’s not the first time that Mika Rottenberg has tackled the issue of aesthetics. In one of her best-known films, Cheese (2008), five women with ankle-grazing waves shake their hair to herd goats, and use a collaborative process of washing, wringing and styling one another’s hair to eventually create a mysterious bottled liquid. The concept is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The piece was inspired by the Sutherland Sisters, seven real-life gloriously maned American siblings who, in the 19th century, left their farm behind to hawk a family-made hair growth tonic. Their own lengthy hair, which extended well past their feet, incited such envy in newspaper ads and drugstore appearances that the women were unable to walk down the street without being mobbed by fans, and their tonic precursor to Viviscal netted a reported $90,000 in a single year. “They were the first American supermodels,” says Rottenberg, “commodifying part of themselves to sell something completely unrelated [to their own physical bodies]. They’re the first shampoo commercial.”
For all of the extreme hair, bold manicures and bright lipstick in Rottenberg’s work, she admits that she doesn’t wear makeup herself and does little to coax her curly hair from twisting however it pleases. The Argentinian-born, Israeli-raised former resident of Spain has never exactly fit in, and she no longer feels the need to. “The definition of what’s beautiful has really expanded since I was growing up. It’s less defined. There’s more room for rebellion. Even with conventional models, there’s a lot more room for extreme.”
In other words, skin—in all its shapes and colors—just got a lot more comfortable.