Martha Rosler has been making art from a feminist perspective since before the Vietnam War, when she xeroxed her photomontages and passed them out at protests as part of the anti-war effort. In 2004, she returned to the form to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In these collages, Rosler combined idealized interiors with images evocative of war, though rarely of violence. “My intention was to draw people in,” she says.
Some of this early work—House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home—is included in an exhibition at the Getty Museum, Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media (through April 3, 2017).
I interviewed Rosler for the exhibition’s audio tour (a track is embedded below, and the full tour is available free online). The conversation seems particularly relevant in light of current events.
Laura Hubber: How did you first start making these collages?
Martha Rosler: In the middle of the 1960s, I was making photomontages that had to do with representations of women in magazines and newspapers. I was essentially cutting up pieces and pasting them on other advertising.
I remember I was sitting at my mother’s dining room table looking at a newspaper with a picture of a Vietnamese woman with a look of absolute panic on her face, swimming across a body of water with a child in her arms, and I was just transfixed.
All of a sudden, it occurred to me that the same kind of collaging that I had been using to critique the representation of women, I could use as a form of protest against the war.
We were looking at this war every single night at dinner time on our TVs, which is why it’s called the “living-room war.” It was very different from the wars of today where we don’t have to turn on the news and see war footage every single night with casualty counts and reporters standing in front of burning villages.
I was interested in a visual means of fighting something imposed on us visually, and what I thought of doing was taking these damn news photographs and putting them on images of our living rooms, which is where we actually saw the footage. It was in our homes, which were supposedly safe and far away.
LH: These very disparate images came from the same magazine?
MR: Usually, yes. From Life magazine.
LH: What do you think it costs us, psychically, as a society, to hold these realities separate, to not make the connection between images?
MR: I think it points to the compartmentalization that people are used to producing in how we live our lives. It prevents us from being a whole society and from being whole individuals.
We are not a here and a there. We are all one, and this is crucial.
LH: You’ve said that in these images of living rooms, it’s really important to you that the viewer is able to stand there…in the room.
LH: Why is that?
MR: I wanted people to be able, in their imagination, to step into that room, and to think about it as their room. And to see what was happening there in the room, or right outside the window.
The images were never bloody or showing people dismembered or what we might now call violence porn because I didn’t want to repel people. I wanted to draw them in. So they needed a place to stand conceptually.
LH: Is this work feminist work as well?
MR: It’s absolutely feminist. It grew out of my thoughts about representations of women. And it very much takes on a question of the home. And, if you will, the militarization of the home as the flip side of the war.
We may posit that the home is “a haven in a heartless world,” to use a Victorian phrase. But, in fact, it’s as much part of the war machine in the maintenance and reproduction of the soldiers, the society, the work force, as the battlefield itself. So, I see this as absolutely stemming from a feminist critique of the way we think of daily life and the various realms and tasks that are assigned to different genders.
The home and the war go together. The space in which women are given dominion is nevertheless the space in which the war is conceptually located. Again, it’s all one.
LH: Is there a narrative arc to the sequencing of the images?
MR: Not really a narrative arc. The scenes are very much like tableaus or thought bubbles without a lot of action.
During the [Vietnam] War, I was invited several times to show them in museums, and I was absolutely horrified at the thought that I would be showing images of casualties of an ongoing war in a museum or a gallery and I rejected that. But later on, I was reminded that if I didn’t show them in some form, people would not know they existed.
LH: Your main aim is to communicate.
LH: So, you want the largest audience.
MR: Yes. That may be megalomaniacal, but you know, when you’re doing anti-war work, you don’t want to just talk to your friends.
LH: When the Iraq War happened…
MR: I had been working with a group I helped form called “Artists Against the War.” But I was itching to do something in my own work against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I thought, “I know. Why don’t I just re-institute the same damn thing I was doing all those many years ago in the 60s?”
I hadn’t been doing collage or photomontage since. I was thinking people would say, “What? You did this already. What are you doing?”
And I’d say, “Yes. I did this already. What is different about what we are doing? We’re in the same quagmire, aren’t we? That we were back then, with no end in sight. Please remember.”
LH: Are you doing any more collages these days with the political situation?
MR: The collage was a very specific moment in my working life. I never thought I would go back to doing collages until I decided to plagiarize my own format in the 2000s for another misguided evil war.
It’s not a natural format for me. It’s just something I did and liked doing. But, who knows? (laughs) I’m very impulsive.
My work is, in large part, about saying to people, “This is my version. You can do this too. Just do it.”