Martha Rosler has seamlessly fused the Dada aesthetic of Hannah Höch with social commentary comparable to Barbara Kruger. Her current show at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery displays her original “Bringing the War Home” series from 1967-1972, documenting the Vietnam War, as well as the more recent “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” series from 2004, illustrating contemporary scenarios from the Iraq War.
Disregarding the gallery labels, which clarify whether an image belongs to the earlier or later series, Rosler’s imagery appears timeless. While certain ad campaigns provide a clear link to a certain decade, war and the American perception of war has remained so consistent that, conceptually, the series appears unchanged.
Rosler’s 1967-1972 series, though, has a slightly more Rockwellian feel. Commercial images, “representing” life in the United States, depict ideal suburban homes, where lily-white nuclear families leisurely enjoy their day—decidedly unaware of the destruction and chaos occupying the foreground or background.
Boy’s Room depicts two brothers in a bedroom decorated in full 1970s glory: red vinyl bedspreads accompany red-and-white shag carpeting. One boy sits at his desk with building blocks, while the other lies on the bed in a gesture that could be read as both laughing and crying. Above the desk, inserted where a window should be, is an image of a protester being arrested by two police officers.
Rosler’s choice of an overall palette of red and white—which she repeats throughout the series—becomes immediately subversive. The protester’s cutout provides a television image of the world outside the boys’ sheltered and patriotic (or perhaps Communistic) bedroom, as well as providing an ominous foreshadow of the boys’ possible future.
Red Stripe Kitchen continues Rosler’s theme of red and white, this time illustrating an empty retro-modern kitchen, where soldiers search the background hallway for any number of possibilities: explosives, Communist paraphernalia, etc. Maybe they’re looking for young hippies hiding in their parents’ closets to escape the draft? Subtle touches, including a plethora of red kitchen accessories and what appears to be a red flag painted on the hallway wall, remind the viewer of the impending threat of war with Russia, another monumental issue during the Vietnam War.
The 2004 series shows an equally oblivious, although more visually integrated, American public “at war.” Advertisements and pop culture icons are surrounded by scattered corpses and imploding buildings. Compared to the first series, the emotional distance from battle is greater, because the figures make no attempt at appearing like “actual” families. According to our advertising, America now consists primarily of models. These commercial stills lend no sense of reality.
Saddam’s Palace (above) combines footage of the devastated palace of Saddam Hussein with stills from a Febreze commercial, depicting a middle-aged housewife freshening her couch curtains. Rosler has become increasingly brazen in illustrating America’s connection to the terrors of war. Saddam’s Palace states that, as the United States so “delicately” attempts, simply glossing over a mess with a slight and temporary fix doesn’t fool anyone.
Similarly, Red and White (Baghdad Burning) criticizes American ignorance of Iraq and the cultural context of the war. A model struts through the middle of the image, wrapped in something akin to a sari, though one Westernized enough for consumption at fashionable department stores. The model is surrounded by soldiers and Iraqi women—images from the Middle East—but she continues on her path, blissfully unaware.
The patterns Rosler chose for the model’s clothes are especially intentional. The cloth is, of course, red. The style is glaringly unlike the traditional clothing worn by the Iraqi woman depicted on the cushions to her right. A visual irony begins to surface: through her feebly “international” fashion sense, the model has unknowingly “brought the war home.” Magazines are thrown open to show collages of soldiers in American flag do-rags, and the red-and-white striped curtains stand symbolically in lieu of the American flag. All the while, her windows brim with brilliant yellow-and-red flame as, outside, an entire city burns away.
Martha Rosler’s collages, by combining pop culture with images of war, shows a world flattened and reduced to media content. It’s a Fox News world that no longer feels shock or fear at the horrors she depicts. That’s perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Rosler’s work: sensing our own shallowness in the face of the repeated imagery of mass culture. Just like the models and cleaning supplies that appear every time you turn on the TV, there’s an equal familiarity with these gruesome images from Vietnam and Iraq. Rosler forces us to reconsider our wars, how we process their imagery, and how we experience them, emotionally, as distinct from the ad campaigns and media we consume.
“Bringing the War Home” will be on view at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery through Fri. Oct. 17 (that’s this weekend). Martha Rosler will give her artist talk at 7PM Fri. to coincide with the closing reception from 5:30 to 7:30PM.