FOR MARTHA ROSLER, THE GOAL HAS ALWAYS BEEN TO MOVE
consciousness forward, in art and in life. One early moment of realization came during graduate school, when Rosler asked herself, and a professor, “Why am I painting?” He said, “Because that’s what you used to do.” It’s now been 30-odd years since Rosler decided she might be an abstract painter in another lifetime, but not this one. She had things to say. She opted for mediums more suited to those messages and harder to commodify: installations, photography, video, performance, texts. She became “postmodern” before it was the buzzword du jour, questioning every system, questioning herself, and deconstructing everyday life as it became ever more canned and corporate.
Rosler’s work is all about looking beyond the surfaces of what she calls (in one of her videos) the “prepared world, one already interpreted for us.” Her current retrospective, split between the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the International Center of Photography, takes on everything from the crisis in homelessness to the politics of the evening meal. She doesn’t just ask questions; she looks for answers, and there’s a great deal of data on display along with the imagery. Those who spend some time with “Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World” will probably have their perception of, say, the evening news, the home commute, or a favorite cookbook forever altered.
ROSLER GREW UP IN CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN. DESPITE THE FACT THAT her parents were “allergic to politics,” she’d already published a poem in her yeshiva newsletter in support of the civil rights movement by the time she was 11 or 12. “I say it’s the ethics of my religious background that brought me to politics. And the arguments [for civil rights] were so rational.” She followed the classic path, from civil rights to the antiwar movement to feminism.
Her early photomontages, begun before she quit painting, supported her political ideas. Some of the images in the “Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain” series—ads altered to expose how women are used as commodities—actually predate the feminist movement by a couple of years. In the “Bringing the War Home” series, Rosler melded images of maimed and anguished Vietnamese with pictures of upscale suburban homes and set grisly war scenes outside the picture windows. These montages were intended for dissemination through underground newspapers. “That stuff was never meant to be in the art world, as long as the war was on,” says Rosler, “because that would have been obscene.”
Rosler likes “to join together the things that appear unrelated and asunder.” Like the connection between “us” and “them” in “Bringing the War Home.” But often the connections are less obvious. A videotape called “Domination and the Everyday” asks viewers to make a connection between images of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, family snapshots, and magazine ads; a dual soundtrack of Rosler talking with her young son and art dealer Irving Blum discussing ’60s painters; and, not least, a crawl text about the controlling class: Pinochet telling his people “You can be replaced,” while we in the U.S., “sleeping and dreaming” in the “already prepared world,” don’t need a Pinochet. The text warns that “until we take control we will always be owned by the culture that imagines us to be replaceable.” Like real life, this is information overload. But the crawl text repeats, and some of the warning text slips through the distractions.
Ideally, Rosler would like to move people toward political action. “If I actually believed in toto that we’re ‘sleeping and dreaming,’ I would have to shut up shop. Not much could be done.”
“Fascination With the (Game of the) Exploding (Historical) Hollow Leg” is a large installation at the New Museum about the escalation of Cold War tension during the Reagan years. Originally created in a Colorado gallery in 1983, “Fascination” looks like a war room, or perhaps that’s an antiwar room, its walls covered with political posters, maps, and all kinds of data on nuclear proliferation. (Colorado is home to significant parts of America’s war machine.) This is one of the more didactic pieces in the show, but then bomb culture deserves a kind of sledgehammer approach.
Rosler did not join a commercial gallery until 1993, when the decline in nonprofit art spaces threatened to make her not just marginal but invisible. She still regards it as part of her work to critique the system and every form she herself uses. She describes one of her best-known works, “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems,” as “a critique of liberal humanist documentary.” Made in the mid ’70s, when the word Bowery seemed to attach itself automatically to bum, the piece is a grid of black-and-white photos of Bowery storefronts, barred doors, and empty Thunderbird bottles, plus text panels of 170 words associated with drinking: blotto, snozzled, stinko, and so on. There are no people in the pictures.
Rosler is not “against” documentary—she teaches its history at Rutgers—but she regards it as a practice that needs rethinking. She does not like “victim photography.” As she once put it, “Just going out to assemble a collection of street trophies about this or that running social sore can’t be effective, and never was.”
ROSLER HAS SAID THAT HER WORK IS A SERIES OF DECOYS. A WORK BRIEFLY masquerades as one thing, “but the more you look at it, the more you see that it’s asking you to think about something else.” For example, there’s the “Monumental Garage Sale.” Rosler did a couple of them as performances/installations while living in California in the ’70s. Now the usual landscape of discarded “treasure” fills the public gallery in the New Museum’s basement: old dresses, kitchen utensils, stuffed animals, dog-eared mysteries. The sale is very much for real, with profits going to charity. But, the artist points out, this piece “also asks you to think again about the structure of desire and possession in America.” In one back corner, shoppers can watch a video of an earlier sale and listen to Rosler asking questions like “Is it a betrayal to sell the housecoat? Are we all petty capitalists?” On a chalkboard nearby, she’s written, “Maybe the Garage Sale is a metaphor for the mind.” Mostly, people don’t seem to notice. Mostly, Rosler observes, they just shop, “a self-fulfilling prophecy of the piece itself.”
Rosler has recently “succumbed,” she says, to photographing in the subway system. She’s already spent years photographing in airports, calling them the quintessential postmodern space, “a space of desire, all about being somewhere else; a space of uniformity and self-effacement, exclusion and surveillance, totally controlled.
“There really is something to think about there, about how we construct those spaces. It’s not a sociology I’m looking for so much as a geopolitics of space. It’s just like the garage sale, the way our world reflects our worldview.”