Martha Rosler Great Powerby Josh Morgenthau
Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery September 6 – October 11
At Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery last month, visitors were faced with a choice—for 25 cents, they could gain admission to Great Power, Martha Rosler’s show about the Iraq war or, for a dollar, they could play the interactive arcade dancing game, “Dance Dance Revolution” (the money would be donated to anti-war charities, a sign explained). The choice might seem empowering, offering passive gallery-goers a pleasant change of pace from their routine. But, like the rest of the work in the show, it also had an air of condescension: God forbid, one of us might rather have 10 minutes of escapist fantasy than the art equivalent of a lecture session.
Inside, Rosler presented a series of photo-montages: images of war and tragedy from Iraq and Afghanistan incongruously mixed with snippets of consumer splendor—stick-figure women in evening gowns, modernist living rooms, male models in black suits and sunglasses. The styles and fashions seemed torn mainly from bygone decades of American prosperity—the ’50s through the ’80s. In one image, a blonde in a Calvin Klein evening gown looms in the foreground, holding an old-fashioned camera and smiling seductively at us while American troops point guns at an Islamic woman and child. The title of the piece, “Point and Shoot,” suggests a parallel between the active violence of American guns and the passive violence of the American public as it comfortably witnesses the war through photographs, without taking action.
In “The Gray Drape” a woman whips a sheet into the air in a mod ’60s living room as if unveiling the latest Hoover model, but instead reveals soldiers outside storming through burning wreckage. A weeping woman in Islamic headdress sits outside the room, seeming to beg for admittance. By placing these disparate creatures together, Rosler inspires some valid but well-worn insights: the beaming housewife may seem happy and self-assured, but isn’t she really as oppressed as the burqa-clad wife? And isn’t the materialism that her lifestyle embodies, in an indirect way, profiting from suffering in the third world?
These feminist tropes and the equation of capitalism with imperialism and war are as old as the nostalgic imagery Rosler borrows. For her, this is the point. The photomontages in Great Power are more or less remakes of her 1960s body of work “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” but sourcing from Iraq, not Vietnam. Back then, she forced us to look at the two faces of American culture as indivisible—a paradox of escapist materialism and foreign atrocity. Like the Dadaists who invented the process of collaging and re-photographing, Rosler’s earlier photomontages retained a humorous sense of the absurd. Now, in the digital age, Rosler still hand-cuts her work but the humor is gone, replaced by the insistence that the two wars are essentially the same—that, in essence, our culture has not changed much in forty years.
Iraq is not the same as Vietnam, and the American public’s experience of the Iraq war, through highly censored video footage, is completely different from how it lived out Vietnam in all the gory details every night on the evening news. Moreover, the role of women today is not the same as it was sixty years ago. This is the decade of Lynndie England and Sarah Palin, of business school graduates choosing to leave the workplace to have babies. With a whole new sort of post-feminist domesticity coming into prominence, Rosler’s dwelling on past prototypes of femininity amounts to arrogance.
Several pieces seem to offer a more thoughtful response to the present. “Prototype (Freedom is not Free)” is a colossal, suspended mechanical prosthetic leg that slowly flexes in midair, creating an eerie counterpoint to the arcade dance-game in the front of the exhibit. “Prospect for Today,” a giant billboard-sized tableau, picks up the amputee theme with two veterans—an African-American and a Caucasian—standing in the center, getting adjusted to their new mechanical limbs. Their stances and expressions speak volumes—clumsy but quizzically steadfast, they subtly capture our zeitgeist. Unfortunately, in both pieces, Rosler opts for the literal instead of the ambiguous and, in doing so, ends up making the same point she made in her photomontages. She adorns the hanging prosthetic limb with images of designer shoes, and flanks the amputees with, on one side, an antique gas pump fueling a military tank and, on the other, Islamic women mourning a covered body. Several years ago, at the height of corporate hedonism and American unilateralism, this work would have been prescient. Now, with the economy crumbling and the majority of the country no longer supporting the war, it seems to gloat over our decay.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.