Martha Rosler, Carey Young at the Whitechapel Gallery

On Thursday night (Nov 20th 2003)– Martha Rosler presented a remake of her “Semiotics in the Kitchen” video from 1975. It’s the video in which she pretends to be a cooking show presenter, and goes through an a to z of kitchen implements, waving them to the camera, and sometimes brandishing them threateningly. She’s trapped inside the tv, inside the kitchen, inside the structure of language (that’s how she talks about the piece herself).


The idea of re-enacting, live, a performance originally made for video was a bit odd, and I think she dealt with it as best she could – by creating a kind of “audition” situation where a couple of dozen young women (who had been recruited from the local art scene) queued up to take a role in the kitchen, going through the alphabet of implements. There were 3 “kitchen sets” where this process was going on simultaneously, meaning that the huge crowd that had assembled at the whitechapel had a higher chance of “getting close” to the performance. It was pretty messy and unruly, but not a bad way to bring a certain intimacy (most of the other pieces this week have used the "auditorium" set-up, which was fine for their work, but Rosler’s needed that closeness between audience and performer). It felt a bit like being in a shopping mall, looking at a (very odd) product demonstration, rather than watching a tv show (although the action was transferred live to tv monitors within the room). Some of the performance participants hammed it up, others were deadpan, I think they all got a kick out of taking part. Rosler acted as a kind of director for the piece, even giving instructions sometimes as it was in progress.


"Semiotics in the Kitchen" came after Carey Young’s “Optimum Performance”, which took the ambiguous meaning of the word “performance” (meaning either “a piece of performance art”, or “a level of achievement within the business world”, similar to “effectiveness” or “efficiency”) and transformed the gallery into a motivational business seminar. She hired an actor to present the piece, which he did very well indeed, in front of a set consisting of grey felt-lined panels and indoor plant. The speech itself was all about how we can all "achieve better performance by having regular reviews". It was very funny, and cleverly written and crafted.


However, I would not make any claims for the effect of the work beyond being a (in-)joke or stunt…unfortunately, that’s just what Young did in the discussion panel session at the end of the night, jargonistically telling us what the piece was “about” (“soft architecture” “soft business”, (whatever that means) and “creating a space of ambiguity”) and so on. She told us that she had worked in the business world for some years, and that she felt it was important for artists to develop the ability to speak corporate language and operate within a business environment. She even mentioned that art was being considered as a diplomatic tool for international trade deals, and that it could therefore be a powerfully subversive element in world politics.


Young's argument was utterly unconvincing, especially after the Morris lecture from the previous night, which had hammered home the way that large artworks have constantly been used as an unconscious tool of capitalist imperialism. Young was also disappointing for her lack of commitment to any "actual" real life politics – she said that she had used the business sphere as “research” for making artworks. Contrast this with Rosler, whose work and life deals with labor and gender in a direct and concrete way, and, as Rosler said, maybe there was a “generation gap” issue going on between the two artists. Young came across as a caricature of the late 80s artist-entrepreneur (Koons et al), whereas Rosler presented as a throwback to a forgotten generation of outdated and somewhat unfashionable politics (unionism and labour conditions etc). The final question from the audience was “besides being two women, why are you both presenting work on the same night?” – Rosler, who had been holding back up til then, leaned into the microphone and droned “actually, I had been wondering that myself.”

3 thoughts on “Martha Rosler, Carey Young at the Whitechapel Gallery

  1. MR Post author

    i NEVER drone- i am a new yorker. we do not drone, we deliver with dead-pan irony, even when wit, like politics, is long forgotten

  2. Lucas Post author

    Point taken, MR.

    By the way, a friend in Sydney made a remark that I had been a bit harsh in these final sentences in my notes about Martha Rosler:

    “(but really, why DID you call her a throwback, forgotten & outdated?)”

    here is my response to that question:

    I did think, once I realised that other people (besides me) were starting to read the blog, that I should actually look at how what I had written might come across.

    I should be more clear about Rosler in that last paragraph.

    To be sure, I fuckin love her politics.

    What I really meant to say was that, in contrast to the zap and zizz of Carey Young -(whose project, I thought, beyond slick “presentation”, was a bit thin (as you can see from my notes in the blog itself)) – Martha Rosler seemed a bit … tired?

    Or a bit disheartened … as if *she herself* felt like a throwback to a forgotten and (considered to be) outdated way of working…(she may have even said this herself as part of her talk ).

    Far from it: I think we have a lot to learn from her (especially my generation of artists (born in 1975), which has grown up with dwindling experience of unions and co-operation – its like we’re having to learn it ourselves, rather than inherit and grow with it)…

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