New York

View of “Martha Rosler,” 2016. Photo: Christopher Burke.

View of “Martha Rosler,” 2016. Photo: Christopher Burke.

Martha Rosler

View of “Martha Rosler,” 2016. Photo: Christopher Burke.

The inescapable feeling of weariness that permeated my visit to Martha Rosler’s packed exhibition was likely intensified by the summer’s political climate, in particular the improbable, disgusting rise of Donald Trump. With row upon row of protest posters, photographs, maps, videos, archival material, and artworks by more than forty-five contributors, “If You Can’t Afford to Live Here, Mo-o-ove!!” comprised an unwieldy exhibition and series of town-hall meetings organized by Rosler and the shadowy Temporary Office of Urban Disturbances. As a reprise of her monumental three-part exhibition “If You Lived Here . . . ,” presented at the Dia Art Foundation over a five-month period in 1989, Rosler’s current presentation was disheartening. Almost thirty years later, the Dia show’s themes—gentrification, homelessness, urban planning—remain just as urgent, perhaps even more so, yet the current exhibition’s effort to stage a vibrant call to action functioned, at least to this viewer, as a crushing reminder of art’s impotence.

For the 1989 show, Rosler made the dramatic gesture of reconfiguring Dia’s now-defunct space at 77 Wooster Street for each of its three phases. The well-worn leather couch, coffee table, and rug that served as a temporary living room in the first part, “Home Front,” were exchanged in “Homeless: The Street and Other Venues,” for six beds as well as desks and work spaces for visiting organizations. For the final segment, “The City: Visions and Revisions,” the space was reorganized into a stand-alone reading room whose exterior walls were covered in architectural renderings and development studies. On a basic but evocative level, the transformations of a single space infused the overall project with a subtle optimism, underscoring the potential for effecting change in other places.

At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, however, these three segments were shown in a single room, with three spray-painted quotations—a quip from Ed Koch that now serves as the exhibition title; a statement by urban planning scholar Peter Marcuse; and the 1968 slogan “Under the cobblestones, the beach”—indicating the separation between them. The condensed presentation reinforced the feeling that there was no space in which to maneuver. When I visited on a weekday morning, the gallery was empty, save a few employees, which only amplified the sense that this artfully slapdash arrangement was for show, rather than for action. (Four “town hall” meetings, streamed live on Facebook, were clearly meant to mobilize, bringing together activists, artists, academics, and even a councilman, for evening forums. But though informative and insightful, the dialogue led to no clear or concrete plan for actual political action.)

With its hovering ellipsis, “If You Lived Here . . .” preserved a potential for transformation through its very non-completion; it left open the possibility for alternative endings, as if the trite real estate pitch (“. . . you’d be home now”) could not only be rewritten but reimagined. But that change never took place. The hard-nosed “social practice” art of the ’80s wound up as little more than a token gesture, inadequate in the face the Bloombergian collusion between New York’s real estate market and the forces of global capital. With its hopeful grammar ousted by the bovine drawl and double exclamation point of that forceful imperative mo-o-ove!! Rosler’s current title forecloses any possibility for change—perhaps in that sobering sense, it’s realist.

Rachel Churner