Martha Rosler

Generali Foundation

“Positions in the Life World,” a traveling survey of Martha Rosler’s work of the past thirty-four years, organized with the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, brings out one of the artist’s greatest strengths: her ability to articulate a broad spectrum of themes—and to rework them over the years with undiminished returns—in media appropriate to her subject and reflective of the changing contemporary art world.

The fact that Rosler’s exhibition opened during the war in Kosovo gave an unwanted if affecting concreteness to one of her ongoing thematic concerns: namely, war and the way it is represented in the media and in public opinion. One was greeted by “Bringing the War Home,” 1967–72, a series of photomontages wherein Rosler superimposed images of the Vietnam war onto pictures of bourgeois interiors taken from shelter magazines. Along with an obvious antiwar message, the work disrupts the middle-class ideal of privacy and challenges the bourgeois conception of the public sphere as a remote discourse. The largest installation on view, Fascination with the (Game of the) Exploding (Historical) Hollow Leg, 1983, is a multimedia work about the arms race that takes the form of an imitation war room, complete with maps, military clothing, and audio and video elements.

Military and cultural imperialism manifest a culinary aspect in the three-part video installation Global Taste: A Meal in Three Courses, 1985, while cooking becomes another kind of battleground in A budding gourmet, 1974, one of the serialized “Food Novels” Rosler dispatched as postcards in the mid-’70s. Through the voice of a woman hoping to better herself socially by learning to cook, Rosler reflects on “taste” as a mark of social distinction.

Rosler’s lesser-known pieces underline the necessity of such a retrospective, revealing the intermediate tones and poetic qualities, and even the funny side, of an artist typecast as political and feminist. The straightforward feminist critique of representation in the early photomontage series “Beauty Knows No Pain, or Body Beautiful,” 1966–72, is taken further, and intertwined with subtle observations on women’s labor conditions, in the postcard novels McTowersMaid and Tijuana Maid, both of 1975. Naturally, the show documents all the important stages in Rosler’s work: the Garage Sales of 1973 and 1977; groundbreaking projects like “If You Lived Here . . .” of 1989, first shown at Dia Center for the Arts; her commentary on fundamental questions of representation, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974–75. The problem of representation as such—its possibilities, borders, and embedded ideologies—is exposed as the most prominent of the concerns animating Rosler’s art.

One of the most impressive aspects of the retrospective lies in seeing an artist who, though always skeptical of the modern fetishization of creativity, handles the question of the production of meaning with such continual inventiveness.

Christian Kravagna
Translated from German by Elizabeth Felicella.