Why Martha Rosler’s Vietnam War series remains relevant today
Martha Rosler is most notable for her Bring the War Home series, created in the 1960s and 70s in response to the Vietnam War. The series comprises twenty photomontages that combine images of war from Life magazine with upper-class domestic interiors from House Beautiful.
The Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War) has long been characterised as “the living room war” because this was the first time mass media brought the horrors of war to peoples’ homes. Martha Rosler was shocked by the intrusion of images of innate human barbarity. Foreign policy had gone from being something very abstract to something very real. Through her photomontages, Martha introduces ironic juxtapositions between home and abroad, wit and urgency, immediacy and narrativity; her use of images of domestic interiors creates spaces the viewer can almost step into. A recurrent theme in these pieces is her use of windows to frame our gaze and guide us towards the horrors of the outside world. Martha’s attempts to bring these two seemingly disparate worlds together reflected her desire to make people aware of the social injustices occurring over 8,500 miles away. She showcases how foreign warfare became intrinsic to definitions of the home in twentieth-century American politics. This enabled Martha to question why Americans were fighting a war over somewhere so far away.
Martha was interested in themes of social justice long before they were brought to American screens. She attributes her preoccupation with social justice to her religious upbringing as an observant Jew. Therefore, although it is important to understand these pieces within the wider backdrop of anti-war sentiments, it is equally important to understand them within the context of Martha’s personal life. Martha stopped painting almost as soon as she became aware of the atrocities being committed in Vietnam. She created these photomontages as political propaganda, not art. Her decision not to sign them as works of art underlines this. Instead, they functioned as political posters and were handed out during anti-war rallies and in magazines. However, Martha insisted that her photomontages should not have slogans because she wanted the images to speak for themselves. The physical act of cutting up enabled Martha to recode images and disrupt familiar spaces. Martha returned to the same subject matter in 2004 to depict the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Martha’s photomontages continue to evolve in response to the continuation of social injustices in society almost forty years on.
In a year that has been fraught with social anxieties and injustices, highlighted by Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement, it seems only too right to return to this harrowing series. The contrast between domesticity and violence transforms Martha’s photomontages into timeless reminders of the illusory nature of the American dream. Moreover, her domestic interiors take on new meanings given that many of us have been confined to the four walls of our homes under various lockdowns. Red Stripe Kitchen depicts two soldiers making their way through a neatly colour-coordinated red kitchen. The presence of soldiers within domestic spaces disrupts the safety and domesticity associated with these spaces. Her photomontages anticipate the ability of social media to bring the horrors of the outside world inside. However, a combination of fake news and algorithms emphasises the power of social media to distract, subvert and manipulate. This is perhaps most explicitly communicated in Photo Op from her 2004 series, which depicts a woman busy taking selfies whilst the world outside goes up in flames. Martha’s photomontages appear as constant reminders that there is a world beyond our homes and screens that is loaded with conflict and injustice. Perhaps we are living within our own living-room war, but we do not know it yet.
By Venetia Jolly