Martha Rosler was a disrupter before it was hip to be a disrupter. The conceptual photographer and video artist has been a ‘disrupter’ within the art world, long before that word became a much-used term in academia and popular culture. Now in her mid-70s, the artist can look back over a prolific career spanning three decades in which her complex and politically engaged work—video, photomontage, performance and digital media—has been both critically well-received and condemned. What remains consistent is that her artwork continues to be not only hugely influential but also crucially relevant to our present day: a time defined by social and political movements like #MeToo and BLM. Be it tackling gender norms or the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Martha Rosler isn’t afraid to take on a fight.
A self-described socialist and feminist, Martha describes her upbringing in a restrictive Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, NY, as the catalyst for her questioning of gender norms and the sexualization of women. Upon graduating from Brooklyn College, the artist focused on creating photomontages by cutting out images from popular magazines like Life and The New York Times Magazine, and juxtaposing photos of women’s body parts with domestic products in collages, which make for uneasy viewing with their undertones of irony and violence. Martha is proficient at decontextualizing and manipulating images, creating worksthat ultimately demand that the viewer redefine their expectations. This can be seen in her more recent work such as “Photo-Op” from the series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” (2004) which depicts a glamorous woman posing for a selfie, whilst, just outside her window, soldiers with guns are surrounded by raging fire. The series is a direct critique of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In her most iconic work, the video piece called “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), the artist decontextualises kitchen implements vis-a-vis the alphabet—hence, A for apron, B for bowl etc., all delivered by Martha in a deadpan and formal fashion. Concluding the video, she brandishes a knife with which to draw a Z in the air and shrugs nonchalantly. It is long accepted that this piece functions as a parody and a critique of the gendered space that the kitchen represens, questioning the accepted norm at the time that the kitchen is the female domain. She questions the language of domesticity, its suppositions and the very idea of the ‘happy housewife.’ To bring to the fore these ideas in 1975 was radical and helped to define second-wave feminism.
But does “Semiotics of the Kitchen” resonate today within the climate of intersectionality and third-wave feminism? I would argue that her work not only still resonates in our contemporary context, but continues to prompt dialogue about the marginalisation of women and subservient gender roles within the dominant patriarchal discourse. We no longer simply question the gendering of the domestic space but rather acknowledge that the domestic space is not a binary male or female paradigm. Instead, the significance of home life is informed by the individual’s ethnic make-up, socio-economic standing and religious or cultural affiliations. Hence, a kitchen is not just a kitchen. Martha Rosler has known this all along.
By Eileen Church-Riley