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The War is Always Home: Martha Rosler

Laura Cottingham, October 1991, New York City (catalogue essay)
These ten photographs from Martha Rosler's Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, 1967-72, utilize the collage technique favored by the Surrealists and later the Pop artists; but Rosler's central concern isn't the unconscious, the ironic or the formal. Produced during the peak of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam and an outgrowth of Rosler's own involvement with anti-war activities, these photomontages are a response to the artist's "frustration with the images we saw in television and print media, even with anti-war flyers and posters. The images we saw were always very far away, in a place we couldn't imagine."1 Assembled from the pages of Life magazine — where the documentary accounts of blown bodies, dead babies, and anguished faces flow seamlessly into mattress ads and photo features of sophisticated kitchens, fastidiously fertilized lawns and art-hung living rooms — Rosler's montages re-connect two sides of human experience, the war in Vietnam, and the living rooms in Amerika, which have been falsely separated.

The consumer media avoids directly referring to political and economic connection between your cozy sofa and someone else's dead body: Rosler reveals the artificiality of this severed causality. The separation of us from them, here from there, is an illusion we want, as a war-profit society and as immediately war-free individuals, to maintain. In a culture like contemporary Amerika, misunderstanding between ourselves and the objects around us happens on two distinct but interdependent levels. As recognized by Marx and Lacan, things are substitutes for feelings; they are also mistaken for value-free objects, divorced, like a baby in the cabbage patch, from any material gestation. Rosler encourages us to remember where dead babies come from. Her war montages are not constructed from divergent sources: they derive from the same physical site, the same magazine, ironically called "Life." The divorce between war and home imposed by publishing's division between advertising and editorial, home features and war views, was also accepted by the viewer/reader of Life: irrational mis-reading, encouraged from without, is accepted from within. Or, as Horkheimer and Adorno, writing in Amerika, exclaimed: "ideology is split into the photograph of stubborn life and the naked lie about its meaning — which is not expressed but suggested and yet drummed in."2 Could you enjoy your car, your TV, your painting in precisely the same way knowing someone died for your enjoyment? This is the central question to those who enjoy the spoils of post-colonial imperialism; it implicates all of us, as the material benefits of war are not limited to the rich, the multinationals, the government.

Rosler's other work, in video and photography, similarly investigates the ideological structure and cognitive assimilations of representations. In The Bowery in Two Inadequate Systems, 1974-75, she problematized the relationship between photographer and subject. In documenting the alcohol-dependent community on the Bowery through the presence of empty bottles, empty street corners and the facades of buildings, Rosler refused to voyeurize Bowery residents and replicate accepted stereotypes. Her project subverted both the premise and practice of documentary photography and its assumptions of realism. This navigation between the space of signifier and signified, between images and our associate perceptions of them, is a constant feature in Rosler's work.

Bringing the War Home, completed a few years before the Bowery series, is another instance of the artist's critical position vis-a-vie the photographic frame and the restricted ranges of our thoughts. Mis-recognition, as Althusser has suggested, is the central provider in our relationship to experience. Just because we witness what is before us doesn't mean we comprehend what is before us. Like other socially self-reflexive art, such as Adrian Piper's Vanilla Nightmare drawings that make visible the racism hidden in pages from the New York Times, or Hans Haacke's auto-referential critiques that expose the exploitative business concerns of art funders, Rosler's Bringing the War Home makes its artistic closure by connecting the visual foreground with its infrastructural background. Her work, in this project and others, draws on the disjunctive technical style and consumer-capitalism critiques of French New Wave director Jean Luc Godard, who Rosler acknowledges as a major influence. In fact, Godard's Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere), 1974, produced after Rosler finished this series, explores the same contradiction suggested in Bringing the War Home: French consumerism (here) and the Palestinian struggle (elsewhere).

The images of Rosler's series — patio chairs overlooking tanks and shanties, a young Vietnamese carrying a nude bleeding baby up High Modernist stairs, a legless girl standing in the living room, Pat Nixon smiling before a gilt frame of violence, dismembered bodies outside the Giacometti living room — are another chronicle in Rosler's subversive realism. This is not cinematic, or time-and-space aligned realism: it is rational realism. Rosler made her war images "fit" into the frames of Amerikan domestic property. Their precise positioning, into rectangular windows and picture frames, is less a design than a visual clue to the cognitive connection Rosler is making; these images of war are not imposed or forced into these living room, they belong here.

1 All attributions to Rosler are taken from an interview with the author in New York on September 23, 1991
2 Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectics of Enlightenment, translated by John Comming, Herder and Herder, New York (1944), 1969.

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President Bush announces his decision to deploy a new round of surface-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, explains a disinterested reporter standing in front of the United Nations Building.

Cut to cartoons of fingers wagging around a script that says "Hall of Shame." A dogged reporter aggressively pursues a white-haired man in Queens; identified only as "Jack," he is accused of committing crimes against furniture.

Cut to an unhappy client displaying four dining chairs covered with smears of blue latex paint that does not match the carpet -- Jack promised they would.

Cut to an invoice for $675.00, paid to coat kitchen cabinets with polyurethane.

Cut to the unfortunate cabinets, coated with smears!

Cut: the reporter accosts "Jack," sticks a microphone up his nose, corners him in a parking lot, on the steps of a Queens tenement building. It's a journalistic tour de force to rival Woodward and Bernstein: "Jack" is accused of dodging telephone calls, having a bad rating from the Better Business Bureau.

Cut: An angry furniture owner declares: "This man should not be allowed to go into innocent people's homes and ruin their furniture"
— From the Channel 2 11 o'clock news,
Tuesday, September 24, 1991