Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

Martha Rosler, House beau­ti­ful: Gi­a­cometti (1967-72), printed late 1990s Art Gallery of NSW. Gift of Ge­off Ainsworth, 2015. Bring­ing the War Home: House beau­ti­ful, a se­ries of pho­tomon­tages made by Martha Rosler in 1967-72, is still shock­ingly con­tem­po­rary. Though made in re­sponse to the war in Viet­nam, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine a sim­i­larly ar­rest­ing mon­tage of im­ages from, say, Vogue Liv­ing or Do­main and the war in Syria and the thou­sands of mi­grants. What Rosler did in House beau­ti­ful was to bring to­gether types of im­agery that are nor­mally kept sep­a­rate, to sug­gest there is, in fact, a con­nec­tion be­tween them.

Viet­nam politi­cised Rosler, who is known as much for her writ­ings as for her in­stal­la­tions, pho­to­graphs and per­for­mance works since the 1960s. “My politi­cised prac­tice,” she wrote, “be­gan when I saw that things were left out of ex­pla­na­tions of the world that were cru­cial to its un­der­stand­ing.” The anti-war move­ment was piv­otal. So was fem­i­nism. Her pho­tomon­tages were in­tended to make con­nec­tions be­tween the “home front” and the war.

Like oth­ers in the se­ries, House beau­ti­ful: Gi­a­cometti jux­ta­poses an im­age of an as­pi­ra­tional in­te­rior culled from House Beau­ti­ful mag­a­zine with a pho­to­graph from the com­bat zone, as pub­lished in Life mag­a­zine. It’s a shock to see that through the win­dows of the art col­lec­tor’s el­e­gant liv­ing room there is a muddy land­scape strewn with dead bod­ies. It’s a crude but ef­fec­tive trick. The home no longer seems so com­fort­able or so civilised, the art ob­jects in it no longer so dis­in­ter­ested or pure. The scene of car­nage is no longer just a doc­u­men­tary im­age.

The con­flict in Viet­nam was de­scribed as “the liv­ing-room war” as it was the first to be broad­cast into peo­ple’s homes. Im­ages of the war were widely pub­lished; they po­larised opin­ion and helped to fuel the anti-war move­ment. But Rosler was aware of how doc­u­men­tary im­ages serve in part to re­as­sure their view­ers of their rel­a­tive com­fort and dis­tance. These im­ages sep­a­rated “here” from “there”, “them” from “us”, when in fact they were in­ti­mately con­nected. The war, af­ter all, was be­ing fought in the name of those at home.

It seems rather strange to en­counter a work like this in an art gallery, not least be­cause of its pro­duc­tion qual­i­ties: we’re look­ing at a colour pho­to­graph of a pho­tomon­tage. Rosler’s pho­tomon­tages were made to be pho­to­copied and dis­trib­uted at anti-war ral­lies, or printed in un­der­ground mag­a­zines. They started to cir­cu­late in the art world only in the late 80s, when an art dealer sug­gested a port­fo­lio of them be cre­ated; they were later fea­tured in Art in Amer­ica dur­ing the Gulf War.

Pho­tomon­tage as type C pho­to­graph

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