Martha Rosler's Flying Lessons
Essay by Grant Kester
Unclaimed Baggage
In his influential book Art (1913), Clive Bell, one of the foremost English supporters of Postimpressionism, singles out for particular abuse the paintings of William Powell Frith, a Victorian artist known for his large canvases of public spaces and crowds. Those artists who rely on visual representation (and Bell offers Frith’s Paddington Station as the offending instance of a facile and descriptive art), are dismissed as “feeble.” Rather than treating form as an “end in itself” they instead look “through” the form to achieve emotional satisfaction from events in the world that the form evokes or describes. With authentic art, on the other hand, the viewer has a specifically “aesthetic” emotional response to the material or form of the art itself, without relating it to something in the world.

It is perhaps not coincidental that Frith’s painting is of that most symbolic of modern spaces–the railway station–and that most modern of experiences; hurrying to catch a train. Although not a formally adventurous painter, it is interesting to compare Frith’s zeal for quite contemporary subjects like train travel (one thinks also of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844) to Cézanne’s willful burrowing into the rural obscurity of Aix-en-Provence for his subject matter. For the truly moderne artist how one painted was clearly of far greater moment than what one chose to paint. Thus Cézanne showed his modernity for Bell by rendering the world in terms of an ostensibly universal (although initially quite impenetrable) formal language.

I have long suspected that Bell’s vulgar modernist shudders over Frith’s work had as much to do with the lasciviously inter-mingling crowds that filled his canvases as they did with Frith’s reliance on conventional modes of realism. Be that as it may, Bell’s attack on any art practice that deigns to reference a shared symbolic system or social world set the stage for a long standing criticism of “political” art that continues to this day. Specifically, overtly political art is seen as being willfully indifferent to the somatic knowledge over which less “polemical” artists claim mastery. The body and the senses are understood to operate outside of, or beyond, the grasp of conventional forms of power and as a result are attributed an inherently liberatory dimension.

Martha Rosler’s In the Place of the Public illuminates the banality of this distinction, as she portrays the phenomenological matrix of the airport, and the airplane itself, as a site of multiple bodily regimes that are intensely somatic, but no less impacted by relationships of power because of that. Moreover, Rosler has, throughout her career, advanced an art practice that is relentless in its refusal to suppress the political associations of material and lived experience.

Business Class
On my last long plane flight (from Seattle to London), I sat next to a man who regularly flew between Alaska and the Congo to work at an oil pumping station. Due to these flights he had accumulated an ungodly amount of frequent flier miles and was able to use them for upgrades to first class on a regular basis. I sat dumbfounded as he regaled me with tales of seats that reclined back to allow an almost horizontal posture, multi-channel personal video monitors, and seemingly endless supplies of wine and Smokehouse Almonds. It was a world most of us only glimpse through the discretely closed curtains to our left as we enter the plane for economy class.

Martha Rosler is also a frequent flier. She travels not to Congolese oil wells, but to far off conferences, visiting artist gigs and museum lectures. Beginning in the 1970’s Rosler began to gradually assemble a photographic record of the countless air terminals through which she moved on these journeys; at first in an almost off-hand manner and then, increasingly, with a particular sense of purpose; the desire to record the phenomenological and textual space of modern air travel.

The airport is in many ways the emblematic non-site (Smithson) or virtual space of late capitalism, and as such it prefigures more current concerns with “place-lessness” (the “edge city”) and the persistent mobility and in-between-ness of post-industrial life. One moves through the airport always on the way to some other destination, and yet, with the growing regularity of air travel and the growing inefficiency of de-regulated airlines, more and more passengers are spending considerable amounts of time in the airport itself. The airport has responded to this fact by turning itself into a kind of surrogate city with restaurants, massage centers, hotels, book stores, bars, and entire shopping malls.

Maps for the Terminally Lost
Rosler documents the emergence of the airport as the prototypically heroic space of the jet age (think about the streamlining architectural effects of Dulles or Kennedy airports). But the impressive ceremonial structure of the airport is addressed to a non-existent audience. How many of us, while rushing through the airport to make a connection, or emerging bleary-eyed from a long flight, are in any frame of mind to appreciate the grandiose cultural symbolism that surrounds us?

Rosler offers another way to map the airport, not as the adventurous travelers of the jet-age, but as alternately bored and frightened consumers. In her photographs the airport appears like a strange undersea world, filled with a leaden atmosphere, mysterious lights and sounds, and endless subterranean caverns. As we join Rosler on this expedition the anesthetic dulling effect of Simmel’s “metropolis” is replaced by the dawning recognition that the train of modernity has long since left the station.

Portions of the work exhibited in “Ruins in Reverse” were also featured in the exhibition “Martha Rosler: In the Place of the Public,” organized by the Museum für Moderne Kunst at the Frankfurt airport in Germany. The catalog Martha Rosler, In the Place of the Public: Observations of a Frequent Flyer (Positions in Contemporary Art, vol. 3), edited by Ralf Lauter, (Cantz Verlag: Ostfildern, 1998), is available through Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.) in the U.S. -- Grant Kester

Martha Rosler is an artist and writer who has produced a number of innovative video, photo-based and curatorial projects over the past twenty years. Her photo/text piece The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974) is considered one of the most important early critiques of the conventions of social documentary practice. She was the co-curator and editor for If you Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism (Bay Press, 1991 and the New Museum). Her work In the Place of the Public was published by Editions Cantz for the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt in 1997. Rosler is Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of Visual Art at Rutgers University.

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