Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Martha Rosler's Reality

"Photo-Op"
A year ago at the Art Institute in Chicago I wandered into an exhibit featuring photomontages from Martha Rosler's series "Bringing The War Home: House Beautiful."  I'm generally wary of most politically-based art, concerned that agenda will trump subtlety, a problem even if my and the artist's politics correspond.  I worry that the work will state rather than evoke, lecture rather than startle, but I was immediately struck by Rosler.  The memorable pieces in Rosler's series avoid blatancy by letting the war and its attendant cultural, historical, and political concerns creep up on us and our quietly ordinary domestic lives.  And this is Rosler's political gesture.  The war and its warriors stay on the outside (mostly — sometimes they wander in, but they still seem to leave little trace) and we gaze at them through the window.  They become background (soldiers prowling the yard; bomb blast clouds mushrooming behind us as we gab with friends) or inessential foreground (Lynndie England, with tell-tale leash, standing idly in your kitchen; bound
"Saddam's Place"
torture victims on a stylish living room's floor as a runway model struts past) — either way a pretty apt metaphor for contemporary war's inessential place in everyday discourse.  It's just going on over there, a Rosler piece says, so keep doing what you're doing.  In "Saddam's Place," as soldiers explore the ruins of one of Hussein's palaces the woman from the Febreeze commercial goes about her crucial business of freshening up the sofas, blissfully unaware or brutally avoiding.  What's worse?  The yoking together of domestic and horror, ordinary and spectacle, innocent and wicked reminds me a lot of self-proclaimed "Punk Art Surrealist" Winston Smith's collage work.  In fact ever since I saw Rosler's exhibit I can't keep the two apart in my imagination.  Both artists revel in playful pictorial surprise but forcefully remind us that contemporary culture is fairly immune to surprise now, that we Live In Montage, which means that we accept the surreal (or worse, we ignore it), that we are no longer forcefully shocked, and that we can compartmentalize with ease.

Modern life requires it.   In the middle of the last century, poet Denise Levertov argued that "poetry has a social function, it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock."  Rosler's and Smith's work shrug a collective shoulder: there's no shocking anymore.  Your move, poetry.

2 comments:

Katie Scarlett said...

Love this entry, and I'm sure I'd love this installation. Something that rings so true with the image of war just beyond the plate glass window....

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Katie. Yeah...

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