Martha Rosler, "housing is a human right" (1989). A project of the Public Art Fund, Times Square Spectacolor sign, New York. All images courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.
It’s hard to talk about conceptual artist Martha Rosler without being in total awe of her 40-plus-year career of artmaking that is inherently political, feminist, anti-war, and always questioning of the image itself. Rosler is curious, always, about the image beyond the image – that is, who produces it, for whom it is made, and why it would be made visible at all in the first place. She is invested in conversations about race, class and privilege. Thursday evening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she conversed with the museum's new curator of photography and new media, Yasufumi Nakamori, for nearly two hours about her work, and about the documentary and street photographers who have moved and inspired her over the years. The audience was transfixed; I barely heard a shuffle or a ruffle of papers. If someone got up to go to the bathroom, I didn’t hear it.
Rosler, a born-and-bred Brooklynite who came of age in the late 1950s and '60s, a time of Cold War ideology and repression, has always been drawn to photographers that portrayed the lives of immigrants and working-class people of her city and her borough. Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind and Lisette Model are some names that came to mind. Though she admires those images, she also discussed how it was problematic that their work became elevated to the level of “art,” because that wasn’t the original intent behind the photographs. On the screen behind them, Model’s images of bathers at the beach appeared alongside Siskind’s documentation of a day in the life of a working-class woman of color.
“[They portrayed] the non-middle-class life of the city of New York, of my borough Brooklyn, Coney Island, [of people] just hanging out,” explained Rosler, gently, to a packed audience. “It was a kind of soft expression of love of things that one was supposed to turn one’s back on – the 20th century is a time when immigrant children leave the parental world behind and become Americanized.”
After finishing her undergrad at Brooklyn College, Rosler ran away to San Diego for her MFA, because California is the dream and everyone knows that, or at least they should (cue Don Draper’s return to California in the final season of "Mad Men"!) While there, she worked with Eleanor Antin and became more politically involved – San Diego was and still is a city with a huge military presence, and so students organized and activated and created their own spaces. Rosler had to enroll at UC-San Diego as an “abstract painter,” which she obviously was not, but they weren’t going to welcome her application if she said she made anti-war montages.
Her work in the '70s dealt often with the female body and war – many an art student fondly recalls their introduction to “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), wherein Rosler cuts different kitchen objects while going through the alphabet. But her work also deals heavily with labor and the invisible forms of it such as in “Cargo Cult” (from the series "Body Beautiful, or Beauty Know No Pain," 1965-1974).
“At what level do we actually recognize the work of people we designate as ‘others’?” Rosler asks. “It’s always another question, and it’s usually people of color who have been sidelined from mass media publications and so on, especially in terms of the roles they play keeping the economy running. Now, these people probably wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for the mechanization of containerized shipping, but I was thinking about that in the early '70s.”
Critiques of capitalism are central to Rosler’s work as well. How do we arrive at the value of objects? How are we all implicated and complicit in the demanding nature of shopping (commodity fetishism, in Marxist terms)? She played with these questions in her 2012 exhibition "Meta-Monumental Garage Sale," using the American garage sale – a space where individuals assign value to objects – restaging this display of consumerism inside New York's Museum of Modern Art, and asking visitors to haggle with Rosler over the purchase of items. Thus, they arrive at a value, eventually, but it is not dictated by the corporation or business that may have originally produced the object.
Martha Rosler on stage at MIA with her work "POINT & SHOOT, a mourning thought (though I am more enraged than in mourning)", 2016.
Rosler’s anti-war photomontages, reminiscent of Dada/Surrealist artist Max Ernst, came about in 1974 in resistance to the Vietnam War, and again in 2004 with the Iraq War, two wars she was very strongly against. “I did not invade Iraq. The U.S. did. I didn’t do it,” Rosler stated, as someone in the audience inquired about her anti-war images. Her desire to make anti-war images again came about in 2004 because of a desire to “repoliticize things that people were getting comfortable with.”
Shortly thereafter, a recent collage that Rosler had made of President Donald J. Trump flashed on the screen -- it is a collage of Trump pointing, with a now-infamous quote back when he was still gunning for the Republican presidential nomination, where he said: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible." – and beneath that she added the names of as many people as would fit of people of color who have been murdered by police.