Argentinian multidisciplinary artist Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows is a captivating installation and film piece that was first showcased at the 2015 Venice Biennale. A large chunk of the film is a documentary that was shot in 2014 during Rottenberg’s visit to a cultured pearl factory in Zhuji, China. 

There, Rottenberg witnessed firsthand how pearl cultivation led to the exploitation of women and nature. She then created a powerful film and installation piece that raises people’s awareness of the labour and environmental exploitation that goes into making artificially cultivated pearls. This piece reflects the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Decent Work And Economic Growth, Reduced Inequalities and Gender Equality.

Photograph of Mika Rottenberg by Casey Kelbaugh. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

This exploitative nature of artificial pearl cultivation occurs because pearls can only be cultivated by forcefully inserting foreign material or “irritants” into oysters. This is a painful process that may also endanger the oyster’s life. Artificial pearl cultivation factories also run on the backs of underpaid women who do everything from inserting irritants to caring for the oysters before eventually shucking out the pearls and then sorting and shipping them out to clients all over the world. Rottenberg has captured this tedious and cruel practice in NoNoseKnows.

Installation view of NoNoseKnows by Mika Rottenberg. Image courtesy of Dream Idea Machine

NoNoseKnows also intercuts the documentary footage with those of the fictional life of a white woman named Bunny Glamazon. Glamazon works as the factory’s manager, sorting goods to prepare them for customers. Her name alludes to the world’s online marketplace giant, Amazon, which is also notorious for exposing its warehouse workers to unsafe and exploitative labour practices.

A still from NoNoseKnows by Mika Rottenberg shows Bunny Glamazon working in a warehouse. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

In Rottenberg’s vision, like in real life, Bunny Glamazon’s world and the women in the factory are dependent on each other. Whenever Glamazon finishes a shipment, she sneezes so hard it elongates her nose. The particles she sneezes out transform into items of Chinese cuisines that are commonly associated with China for Western audiences. The artist then shows a transition where the factory workers consume this food, suggesting it is their only sustenance before they continue working. Their lives outside the factory remain unseen, implying they spend most of their time working. This vicious cycle alludes to the harsh realities faced by women working in China’s pearl factories, who gain very little from their hard labour.

Still from NoNoseKnows by Mika Rottenberg, showing workers in the pearl cultivation factory sorting pearls. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum (The Met).

At the end of the day, the film prompts people to think about the long journey that artificially cultivated pearls make to reach their consumers' hands—a journey that exploits nature and women at nearly all stages of production.

Still from NoNoseKnows by Mika Rottenberg, showing Bunny Glamazon’s nose elongating. Image courtesy of Artland Magazine.

“I think in my work I try to shape the way things are made and consumed, which has become so vast as to become unimaginable. If we actually comprehended the insanity of it, I think people would probably behave differently,” said Rottenberg in an interview with The New York Times.

Find out more about NoNoseKnows and other pieces by Mika Rottenberg by checking her Instagram on @mikarottenberg

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