[Hegel says somewhere that avant-garde art occurs twice: the first time as self-conscious irony, the second time as an unconscious parody of itself. The following review appeared in 2000 on the occasion of Martha Rosler's retrospective at the New Museum. I've resurrected it for Martha's current retrospective of her retrospective of her forward-looking concept of capital.]
Meta-Monumental Garage Sale
November 17–30, 2012
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Thu, 24 Aug 2000 18:42:50 -0400 (EDT)
WOID #IV-33. Review: Martha Rosler."Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World."
New Museum of Contemporary Art
Through October 8.
Barbara Kruger and Martha Rosler are the Mutt-and-Jeff team of politically correct art. Kruger's the bad cop who shouts at you,
invest in the
divinity of the
artwork,you bad person,
you! Rosler is the good cop who suggests that, hey, look, we know you're a rotten sexist victim of late capitalism, so just confess and we'll be easy on you.
Rosler makes it easy for you, but not easy enough. In the 'seventies she produced masses of collages out of cutouts from girlie magazines, pushing the envelope to dehumanize the bodies further. They're pretty works from a formalist point of view, though I've seen prettier from prison inmates. Perhaps Rosler's best work in the show downtown is a series of videos playing simultaneously, entitled Global Taste. You can't tell them apart from Nam June Paik's recent videos at the Guggenheim Museum, except that Rosler's are meant to be critical. As with Barbara Kruger you're supposed to believe that each of these statements is a condemnation of sexism, or war or whatever - not just its affirmation. In this case the intent comes across: it needs very little indeed to push Paik's initial idea over the edge into parody.Like Kruger, but less directly, Rosler raises the question of the viewer's implication in the hegemonic culture. Unfortunately, whenever she starts to use words she tips her hand. Quite a few works in the show use writing, but it's inevitably framed: when Rosler presents an "indictment" of NORAD (the missile guys), the sheets of printed material pasted up on the wall are just so much wallpaper - everybody looks, but nobody reads. The tight, rectilinear organization of such texts is matched by the desperate confusion of the curatorial design. The whole exhibition feels and sounds like a cacophonous mall. Rosler can't quite manage to grant writing the status of a visual object because that would suggest that visual organization itself is a logical system, which in turn would suggest that she means what she says. If her works were to present themselves as logical systems then they would be subject to the criticism she so easily slings at the world "out there."
To place herself above her own accusations, Rosler brings in a supplement of explanation which fantasizes itself outside the rigid visual organization of the works themselves: hence the aggressive design of the show, anarchic without being anarchist. Downstairs, Rosler has set up a garage sale, with real junk for real sale, but you have to look hard for the board which asks: "Maybe the garage sale is a metaphor for the mind. Or the video in which she asks: are we all petty capitalists?
[In yet another irony the Moma web-site invites the visitors to "become part of the show." After they've paid their $25.00 admission fee, of course...]
It's like when you discover the good cop already has your confession in his hand, ready for your signature. When we tried to buy something from the sale it turned out that Rosler wasn't around to sell it - there was an underpaid Museum employee who was concerned that she might sell us something for the "wrong" price. I guess being a petty capitalist is for the little people...
[08/14/2012; last revised 11/17/2012]
- Paul Werner