Laura Cottingham, October 1991, New York City (catalogue essay)
These ten photographs from Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, 1967-72, utilize the collage technique favored by the Surrealists and later the Pop artists; but Rosler’s central concern isn’t the unconscious, the ironic or the formal. Produced during the peak of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam and an outgrowth of Rosler’s own involvement with anti-war activities, these photomontages are a response to the artist’s “frustration with the images we saw in television and print media, even with anti-war flyers and posters. The images we saw were always very far away, in a place we couldn’t imagine.”1 Assembled from the pages of Life magazine — where the documentary accounts of blown bodies, dead babies, and anguished faces flow seamlessly into mattress ads and photo features of sophisticated kitchens, fastidiously fertilized lawns and art-hung living rooms — Rosler’s montages re-connect two sides of human experience, the war in Vietnam, and the living rooms in Amerika, which have been falsely separated.
The consumer media avoids directly referring to political and economic connection between your cozy sofa and someone else’s dead body: Rosler reveals the artificiality of this severed causality. The separation of us from them, here from there, is an illusion we want, as a war-profit society and as immediately war-free individuals, to maintain. In a culture like contemporary Amerika, misunderstanding between ourselves and the objects around us happens on two distinct but interdependent levels. As recognized by Marx and Lacan, things are substitutes for feelings; they are also mistaken for value-free objects, divorced, like a baby in the cabbage patch, from any material gestation. Rosler encourages us to remember where dead babies come from. Her war montages are not constructed from divergent sources: they derive from the same physical site, the same magazine, ironically called “Life.” The divorce between war and home imposed by publishing’s division between advertising and editorial, home features and war views, was also accepted by the viewer/reader of Life: irrational mis-reading, encouraged from without, is accepted from within. Or, as Horkheimer and Adorno, writing in Amerika, exclaimed: “ideology is split into the photograph of stubborn life and the naked lie about its meaning — which is not expressed but suggested and yet drummed in.”2 Could you enjoy your car, your TV, your painting in precisely the same way knowing someone died for your enjoyment? This is the central question to those who enjoy the spoils of post-colonial imperialism; it implicates all of us, as the material benefits of war are not limited to the rich, the multinationals, the government.