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Short of the Week: Martha Rosler's influential film 'Semiotics of the Kitchen'

'Semiotics of the Kitchen' - Martha Rosler

American artist Martha Rosler has imposed her avant-garde sensibilities on several artistic mediums, ranging from photography to sculpture. Through her art, Rosler has explored the monotony of the female condition and the construct of the home within which she is confined. For her groundbreaking vision, Rosler has been the recipient of several prestigious awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Guggenheim Museum as well as the Anonymous Was A Woman Award.

The 1975 short Semiotics of the Kitchen is undoubtedly one of Rosler’s most well-known works in which she features as the lifeless host of a cooking show. Punctuated by deadpan humour and encompassed by an atmospheric disillusionment, we watch her go through the motions in her farcical attempt to demonstrate the application of kitchen tools. By doing so, Rosler subverts the patriarchal linguistic framework that underlines the female experience.

Throughout the performance, Rosler’s body acts as a semaphore which creates a subtextual economy of symbols and makes us re-evaluate the everyday objects. By indulging in the simple act of naming kitchen appliances and combining them with a subversive body language, Semiotics of the Kitchen transforms into a feminist masterpiece where the female subject expresses a desire for destroying patriarchal constructs through her symbolic silence.

In an interview, Rosler explained: “I was particularly irked and exercised by the images of women and women’s bodies in advertising in the 1960s and 70s that we saw every day or every week, whether it was in The New York Times or in various lifestyle magazines. I was really shocked at the way there was an easy slide from the image of the woman to the image of the woman’s surroundings. But it made sense because we have always assumed, even though it’s pretty much a Victorian idea, that women are responsible for the care and maintenance of the home and family.”

Adding, “I will not contest the idea that women are responsible for reproduction and also the maintenance of the family and the home, and that we are nurturers. We are. But there was this idea that this was somehow melded into the home, the furniture, and all that other material, and there was a particular way that women were both seen as infants — because the 1960s especially were a highly infantilising era for what women were supposed to look like — and at the same time had to be responsible for everything relating to kids and the home itself. So for me, it was an easy slide between the woman’s body and the woman’s home, and I think that actually there is some psychological resonance with that.”

Watch Martha Rosler’s celebrated 1975 short Semiotics of the Kitchen below.