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by Erika Biddle
|Martha Rosler, "Positions In The Life World," July 15-Oct. 8, 2000, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012, and July 29-Oct. 1, 2000 at the International Center of Photography, 1130 Fifth Avenue at 94th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.
A young Vietnamese amputee pauses for breath at the edge of a large, white, American living room -- appearing to be shell-shocked. An open refrigerator packed with red meat is decorated with the naked torso of a woman. A soft-focus bride in a flowing white gown is shown with bare breasts and vulva from a pornographic magazine.
Martha Rosler, the Brooklyn-based art-world provocateur and feminist artist, is receiving her first U.S. based retrospective in a joint presentation at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the International of Photography on Fifth Avenue.
For over 30 years, Rosler has investigated the white, male, capitalist-dominated culture that permeates everyday life. In her theoretical writing, collages, photography and text pieces, her performances and videotapes, she has followed one principle: in order to "bring conscious, concrete knowledge to your work ... you had better locate yourself pretty concretely in it."
Rosler often reuses the "documentation" with which the media defines our everyday lives -- magazine ads, TV commercials and news photos -- and reworks them into highly charged political critiques designed to undermine the geopolitics of information -- particularly with regard to the economics of agribusiness, U.S. cultural imperialism, the oppression of women, the war economy and the nuclear arms race.
Within our determinedly hedonistic art world, Rosler's brand of political art making -- its combativeness, low-tech esthetic and inexorable political didacticism -- is more Popular Front than popular. For many years she declined to show her work in museums and galleries, opting instead to pursue a more direct path to the public via underground newspapers, flyers, the U.S. mail, public performances, etc. These days, she is represented by the Chelsea gallery Gorney, Bravin & Lee and her photos sell for a good price in numbered editions.
The exhibition at the New Museum features several major installations. A Gourmet Experience (1974) uses a banquet-table, sumptuously set with crystal and fine china, along with a small library of cookbooks and a slide projection of exotic main courses to indict the bizarre American culture of consumption. In Unknown Secrets (The Secrets of the Rosenbergs) (1988), a life-size photograph of the convicted atom-bomb spy Ethel Rosenberg -- silk-screened onto canvas a la Warhol -- is bordered by news clips and assorted references to the Cold War hysteria and the U.S. nuclear belligerence that dominated 1950s American ideology.
The entire rear gallery is filled with a rough simulation of a war room, its walls blanketed with press clippings, posters, maps, Reagan-era propaganda and antiwar paraphernalia. An audio tour of NORAD headquarters plays from some speakers, a video loop shows on four monitors and a slideshow features images of antiwar protests in the U.S. and Europe. The project -- originally installed in 1985 at the University of Boulder in collaboration with students there -- is not so much an artwork as an invocation of a social movement.
The New Museum also displays Rosler's Serial Postcard Novels (1974-76), which she originally sent out through the mail. One of them, McTower's Maid (1975), tells the story of a disgruntled woman who starts her career as a hamburger unwrapper, and her plans to better the food by spiking it with marijuana -- a sampling of the subversive humor that characterizes Rosler's video and performance-based works.
Among Rosler's more recent works is a series of cold, institutionally defined photographs called "Transitions and Digressions" (1981-1997). Taken in public spaces, these pictures of shop window mannequins, deteriorating street posters, museum displays and subways explore the extent to which images of the human body, particularly fragmented ones (and more often than not, female), define "public space."
Uptown at the ICP, several photos from "In the Place of the Public: Airport Series" (1983-94) -- an installation that incorporates photos of airports ("the quintessential space of postmodern life") with video and text -- are visible from the base of the grand staircase when you enter the building. Rosler's eye for desolate "Alphaville" spaces marks her as one of contemporary art's premiere dystopians.
Three small monitors embedded into a freestanding wall show a continuous loop of Rosler's performances, but hidden beyond this is a small theater showing a Rosler "video retrospective." The program -- the first time the ICP has shown video work -- includes the classics Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and A Budding Gourmet (1974). Both of these videos address feminist issues that are more time-bound than her other works, and may require the exercise of some nostalgia to appreciate fully.
Bringing the War Home (1967-72) is a series of photomontages comprised of more than 20 images, in which Rosler inserted news photos of the war in Southeast Asia into pictures of American home interiors (taken from House Beautiful), in a pointed commentary on two social milieus, so radically different, linked by media representations and geopolitics.
The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75) is an early Rosler work that addressed a social condition with the formal language of Conceptual art. Gridded black & white photos of architectural details and empty bottles of liquor -- she never shows a single "bowery bum" -- are paired with typewritten lists of slang words for drunkenness. Apparently, in spite of her reverence for social documentary photography of the 1930s (among these images is a homage to Walker Evans), Rosler rejected the traditionally humanist focus of these photographers in an attempt to avoid what could be called the "poverty esthetic."
"Rites of Passage" (1995-1998) is a series of long, almost panoramic photographs of the roads she travels to and from her home in Brooklyn. These photographs, taken from inside her car, focus mostly on billboards, to show the urban landscape as largely a site for advertising. The steering wheel, windshield wipers and rearview mirror are cut into and frame the image, as if to circumscribe the mythical freedom of the American road.
It's rare to see political art that is esthetically persuasive -- and certainly not all of her work achieves this -- but the two major photomontage series, "Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain" (1966-72) at the New Museum and "House Beautiful" at the ICP, are exquisitely detailed and very engaging.
Rosler is the first to cite her artistic elders -- Sergei Eisenstein, John Heartfield, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Höch and Surrealists like Max Ernst, Bertolt Brecht and the filmmaker Jean Luc Godard. Their montage technique brings many small fragments together to create a whole new picture, a way of looking at the world critically and a slippery way of working within the conventional dictates of a medium based art practice. By invoking the symptoms of everyday life in her art, Rosler brings this one step further -- her work is more than political, it is also extremely personal.
ERIKA BIDDLE is an editorial assistant at Artnet Magazine.