Though on the surface surrealist art is based in unreality, surrealism ultimately provides insight into reality itself, because it allows us to view the world around us in novel ways. Surrealism oftentimes plants its focus in a separate space from reality. Yet there are times when reality and unreality can overlap. These instances often open our eyes to reality the most, because they show us the sharp contrast between the imagination and reality. Mika Rottenberg’s short film “NoNoseKnows” does exactly this. The film layers the real world onto a surreal world; in one sphere, workers at a pearl factory insert irritants into oysters to create and harvest pearls, while in another, a businesswoman has her nose irritated by the scent of flowers until it grows long and red and she sneezes out plates of food. The similarities between the two narratives of the film are striking – there is great emphasis on the use of irritants on a living creature to produce a desired reaction, presumably in the name of capitalism. By layering these two narratives, Rottenberg masterfully plants the surreal into reality, creating a commentary on the pearl industry and opening our eyes to the way workers around the world are treated.
By definition, surrealism seems to separate out reality from unreality. It seems contradictory for the surreal to inhabit the same space as the real, but surrealists are able to show both at the same time in order to change our view of reality. Surrealists recognize that you cannot have fantasy unless there is a reality that you are deviating from. As Bruce Elder says, “In accepting that this sur-reality inhabits everyday reality, the surrealists embraced the paradox that the poetic image is located in the very space from which they wish to escape.
The real is always present in the surreal, which, therefore, never becomes simply fantastic.
Discovering the poetic within the real transforms the real” (Elder, 295). This means that surreal art can never truly exist without reality, even if it seems otherwise. The footage in “NoNoseKnows” of women working in the pearl factory is documentary style footage that Rottenberg collected during a trip to Zhuij, China. This practice is real and is happening in the world, it is not something made up for the film. Mika Rottenberg was able to transform the real aspects of her film by contrasting them with the unreal aspects. She discovers the poetic within the real, and showcases it by creating an echoing surreal narrative alongside the real one. The women in the pearl factory are irritating a living creature so as to induce it to create pearls for the sake of creating a commodity. This in itself is strange, yet it is accepted because it is the reality that capitalism creates. Rottenberg sees the poetic in this situation, and creates a surreal world where a human woman is the creature being irritated to create the commodity. Thus, Rottenberg shows us the reality she is deviating from, and proceeds to create a surreality that directly echoes it in order to transform the reality into a commentary on pearl production.
Not only does Mika Rottenberg position the two worlds of her film in contrast, she layers them in a way that emphasizes that the two narratives mirror each other. Throughout the film, the two narratives intersect in only a few places. A factory worker turns a crank, which connects to a rope going into the ceiling of the factory, which is shown to lead into the floor of the businesswoman’s office. Later, we see a factory worker sleeping with her feet in a bucket of pearls, and the same bucket is seen on the floor of the business woman’s office, complete with the factory worker’s feet sticking out into the air. These connections between the separate narratives of the film blur the line between the real and the surreal. The film presents these two narratives as happening in the same place, not just parallel to each other but actually mirrored. The businesswoman and the oysters are both being used as a tool to create a commodity, and the factory workers go through the same type of toil to create the pearls as the businesswoman does to create the food. The fact that the content of the two narratives are paralleled coincides with the fact that the two locations of the film are paralleled. On top of this, the art installation of this piece in the museum includes a 50-kilogram bag of pearls in the doorway to the viewing area. This aspect of the piece serves as a reminder that the pearl production industry exists in our world; it is tangible proof that some of what occurs in the film also occurs in reality. The pearls in the doorway blur the line between what exists on film and what exists in reality, further conflating the separate notions of reality and surreality. They remind us that what seems like fiction can sometimes open our eyes to fact. Thus, Rottenberg is allowing us to draw the connection that these two narratives mirror each other, both in their location and their content, while also reminding us that both narratives are grounded in reality. This helps us make meaning out of the real through use of the surreal.
“NoNoseKnows” is a film that stands strongly in both reality and surreality. Yet these seemingly conflicting spheres work together to produce a meaning within the film. The film makes a commentary about the exploitation of living beings – both human and oyster. It does this by taking an accepted reality and turning it into a ridiculous surreality, which makes the viewer question what we really know and think about reality. The real and the surreal overlap the same space within this film and even within the gallery where it is displayed, allowing us to examine both as poetic representations of the world. Mika Rottenberg uses surreality in order to transform the true meaning of reality.
Elder, R. Bruce. Dada, surrealism, and the cinematic effect. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2015.