in Frieze | 05 NOV 93
Featured in
Issue 13

Crossing Borders

Martha Rosler

in Frieze | 05 NOV 93

Since the late 60s, Martha Rosler has been making art - a very political art, that refuses to rest neatly within any one medium, ideology or aesthetic but rather seeks to explain the world by revealing the fallacies of its own explanations. Her work in video, photography and text persistently evokes a dialectic of meaning wherein meaning is constructed, broken, and by virtue of its very dismantling, reconstructed again. Although some critics have argued otherwise, Rosler's work is not really 'post-modern' in the sense that challenging the veracity of our signifying practices is only the beginning, not the end, of her investigation. She is less a Baudrillard than a Habermas and more of a Kafka than either.

Rosler's interrogation of categories, both social and philosophical, and the disturbance she brings to the organising principles of everyday life (as well as those of art production) includes her own refusal to participate within one of the dominant conventions of contemporary art production - the gallery system. Until this year, Rosler has never been represented by a gallery. Despite this, she is one of the most influential artists of her generation.

Among her earliest works is a series of photographs concerning the Vietnam War which were published in the alternative press during the early 70s but until 1991, were never exhibited in an art context. Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-1972), was an outgrowth of Rosler's participation in anti-war activities, a response to the artist's 'frustration with images we saw in television and print media, even with anti-war flyers and posters.' 'The images we saw were always very far away, in a place we couldn't imagine.' In this remarkable series, images taken from Life and other mainstream American magazines are re-assembled then rephotographed, thus re-connecting two sites of human experience - the war in Vietnam and the American home - which the media insisted on falsely separating. These rephotographs don't reflect the unconscious or irrational inspiration central to the collage experimentation of Surrealism or Dadaism, nor do they evidence the sense of ironic play typical of 60s British and American Pop assemblage. Rather, like John Heartfield's politically conscious photoworks, or Jean-Luc Godard's self-reflective cinematic technique of the late 60s, Rosler utilises found images not to produce 'another' reality, but to expose a material connection buried, denied, and mystified by the mass media.

The collage technique employed is deliberately precise: the war images literally fit into the space of American domesticity. In one, of a white high tech kitchen equipped with the most stylish of contemporary consumer conveniences, two soldiers are bent to the ground, looking for combat gear as if searching for a lost button. Another is set in a boy's bedroom. One boy is asleep while another is preoccupied at his desk; an image of grim-faced soldiers at war appears on the wood-panelled wall, but both boys are oblivious to it as they might be to an old Beatles poster. In another, Pat Nixon smiles into the camera, surrounded by the elegant, French-inspired luxury of the White House, seemingly unaware of the bloodied woman pictured in a heavy gilt frame that hangs securely above the mantelpiece. Like Jean-Luc Godard's Ici et Ailleurs (1974), which connects French consumerism to the Palestinian struggle, Rosler's Bringing the War Home... asks us to consider the real social and economic connections between our comfortable sofas and someone else's dead body. Rosler forefronts the false division between 'us' and 'them', between 'here' and 'there' and suggests that this separation is an illusion that we are economically and emotionally invested to maintain.

During the 80s, many theoreticians denounced the possibility that any representation can claim a hegemony of truth. Rosler's work is ambitious in its refusal to accept any easy solutions to the theoretical problems that attend representation, while at the same time continuing to insist that communication, a real communication, must be attempted. While theoretically-motivated (Rosler's writings and lectures have been as influential as her visual works), she remains committed, to paraphrase Marx, to the idea that the purpose of theory is not to change theory, but to change the iniquity of social relationships. As she informed one interviewer just a few years ago: 'You're not going to catch me saying there's such a thing as direct, unmediated truth, but there is more truth and less truth, better explanation and poorer explanation, better social practice and worse social practice.'

One of Rosler's earliest works challenges those who prioritise theory over lived experience. In the video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), the artist stands in the kitchen before a table piled with ordinary culinary utensils. As she recited the alphabet she lifts an item to illustrate each letter (A, apron, B, bowl, C, chopper...)'; but the last few letters of the alphabet are represented only by sound and the image of Rosler slicing the air with a knife. This glib performance suggests that any 'semiotics of the kitchen' is only a fetish unless it is useful in liberating women from domestic servitude. One of the first generation of video artists, Rosler began working with the then new technology because 'it could be used in some way to reverberate against television.' Like other feminist artists of the time, Rosler used her own body and experiences in much of her work. But the most distinctive personal feature is usually her voice. As Amy Taubin has written, 'Rosler's voice is one of the strongest elements in her work. Rosler's voice is tough, intelligent and unmistakably of Brooklyn origin.' Writing of Rosler's Vital Statistics of a Citizen Simply Obtained (1977), Taubin heralds the 'specificity' of Rosler's voice: 'The voice of a specific person who grew up in a specific time, place and social class, her voice is her best argument against the social standardisation that is the target of her tape.'

Attention to the individual specificity of lived experience is a guiding principle in Rosler's work. Gender, class, race and nationality are always multi-valanced in her representations - even in her projects from the early 70s when such considerations were less in the forefront of most art practice. In Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (With Paper Tiger Television) (1982), her voice is the central carrier of meaning in a tape which is a literal enactment of the title - the artist reading Vogue magazine aloud, in real time. Rosler's voice is a curiously controlled instrument that speaks neither with heartfelt conviction nor its opposite adamant derision. An opening is created by the tenor of her delivery: the narrator and the audience are not excused from the implications of the reading, but neither are they blamed. Rather, her voice functions as a sign of distance and consideration. In her first video, A Budding Gourmet (1974), a middle class white American woman (Rosler), narrates her desire to learn to cook gourmet food (for her husband), as the camera shifts around from images of the woman to images of the fancy food to images of starving people. The flat monotone enunciation of this semi-confessional narrative helps reveal the multiple contradictions brought forth by the text. Rosler highlights ethnocentrism ('I'm thankful we can give them [our children] the advantages of living in America. We can take the best of all times and places and make them our own.'); class bias ('Some people have money but no old-fashioned breeding.'); ignorance of world starvation (we, the viewers, see the starving but she only talks of recipes); and, finally, blindness to one's own subordination (it is for her husband and children the woman must learn 'to cook gourmet'). Rosler always keeps her voice at a mild variance with the words it is communicating, thus producing a constant uncertainty about what is being said, why, and for whom; her voice is one of the most effective critical devices any artist has yet used in video or film.

In one of her most influential projects The Bowery in Two Inadequate descriptive Systems (1974-5), black and white photographs of Bowery storefronts hang adjacent to clusters of typewritten words that mean 'drunk.' This piece challenges the inadequacy of pictures and words to reveal social reality, and specifically the reality of 'Bowery bums'. As Craig Owens observed: 'Most importantly, Rosler has refused to photograph the inhabitants of Skid Row, to speak on their behalf, to illuminate them from a safe distance (photography as social work in the tradition of Jacob Riis.) For "concerned" or what Rosler calls "victim" photography overlooks the constitutive role of its own activity to be merely representative (the "myth" of photographic transparency and objectivity.)' Still, Rosler insists her critique 'Doesn't mean that photography and, in particular, documentary, can't work in a project of social change, only that photography's role has to be re-thought.'

A recent piece produced for the travelling exhibition 'Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era,' successfully synthesises many of Rosler's concerns. Unknown Secrets (1988), is composed of three parts: a large framed canvas covered with silk screened images taken from various printed sources, a simple wooden pedestal that holds a 14 page essay written by Rosler, and a wooden rack holding a printed dishtowel and a box of jello. The dominant image on the canvas is of Ethel Rosenberg standing before a kitchen sink, drying a plate. She is surrounded by various 50s icons: of motherhood, the arms race, and media photos of the Rosenbergs - including a display of their open coffins, which ran in Time magazine.

Rosler's text gives an analysis of the 1951 trial and subsequent death sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage. Her essay includes excerpts from the Judge's hyperbolic sentencing speech, whose rhetoric was reproduced and amplified upon, by every major American news agency. It accuses the Rosenbergs of a 'crime worse than murder,' of altering 'the course of history to the disadvantage of our country,' and of 'sacrificing their own children.' Of course, as many thought at the time, the Rosenbergs could never have been Russian spies.

This piece re-presents Ethel Rosenberg as an instance from the popular consciousness - a charged symbol Rosler knows America would prefer to keep hidden. Given the anti-Communist hysteria of the 50s was an irrational national pathology, what were the actual fears that the Red scare sought to veil? According to President Eisenhower, whose words were reprinted on the dishtowel, Ethel Rosenberg was 'the strong and recalcitrant character', and unless she received the death sentence 'from here on in the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women.' The same exaggerated fear of women communists was more recently put forward by Richard Nixon in a 1986 New York Times editorial. Rosler cites Nixon's comments on the Alger Hiss case: 'In the case of Communist couples...the wife is often more extremist than the husband.' While suggesting that men's need to control women encouraged Ethel Rosenberg's sentence, the jello box in the piece also forefront's the complete absurdity of the whole situation. Although the jello box could be seen as a nod towards the empty artificiality of 50s America, it is actually a specific reference to the Rosenberg trial. The primary prosecution witness, David Greenglass, claimed Julius Rosenberg had given him half a jello box as a Communist spy recognition device! The box in Rosler's tableaux, like the one offered as evidence during the trial (in replica, as Rosler notes) is imitation raspberry flavour.

Rosler's latest project, Infinite Deferral (1993), is an installation of Cibachromes taken in airports, circumscribed by wall texts. These images - of advertisements, motorised walkways, baggage carts and other standard airport features - obliquely question the relation between public and private space. In one photo, taken in Chicago's O'Hare, an advertisement for Channel 7 is captured within the reflections of moving passengers. A glare blankets the eyes of star newscaster Ted Koppel, blinding him. His loss of vision renders ironic the ad copy printed beneath Koppel's head - although, as a literal statement it could be taken as apt summation of Rosler's 25 years of practice. It reads: 'Look at the news with more intelligence.'