Martha Rosler: Below the Surface

During the Christmas break I persuaded my husband to put in an overnight trip to Seattle so that I could see some of the exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum. The main attraction for me was Martha Rosler’s exhibit Below the Surface.

The exhibit consists of her 1960’s series photo montages that she did during the Vietnam war (House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home) and her follow up series of the 2004 war in Iraq. The aim of both these series is Rosler’s attempt to show how integrated the world really is despite the physical distances between the actual places where the wars took place and people’s homes. She also addresses the contrast between luxury consumerism and the atrocities of war.

Martha Rosler: Below the Surface
fig. 1 Martha Rosler: Below the Surface

Rosler is a feminist, political activist, artist and theorist who continually draws attention to social concerns. The scrutiny of evolving media and image strategies, which she dissects with sly humor and grit, is an intrinsic part of this undertaking – to reveal the narratives and power structures embedded within (Seattle Art Museum).

The photo montages are extremely well done and very realistic. Various advertising images have been montaged with snippets of war images from the appropriate time periods in which the two series were made.

Walter Benjamin described the visual shock of the montage as a defining characteristic of the modern age.

(Seattle Art Museum)

One is compelled to stand and search through the image to find the punctum (which are the war images inclusions). Some are extremely subtle and not so obvious to find. I particularly enjoyed searching through the Election image (below – please excuse the highly reflective glass). One really has to get up really close and inspect every little detail in the image, and in doing so, one is unavoidably drawn into the frame. When one looks very closely one sees that all the literature spread out on the counter and the magazines with gourmet food titles (signifiers) displayed on the walls all contain images of torture from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which took place in a prison outside Baghdad in Iraq and this causes quite a reaction. Almost like receiving a punch to the gut because we are expecting other mental concepts (signifieds) such as photographs of delectable food.

Two similar scenarios of torture are taking place in the elegant double oven while mayhem reigns in the streets (in another place, possibly Iraq) outside the American suburban kitchen. The main subject (the woman – signifier) standing in the kitchen is not what one would normally expect, which would be that of a woman wearing an apron (signified). Instead she is a soldier, holding something that is obscured behind the kitchen counter, on a leash. Through research we know that this is an Abu Ghraib image and the soldier (Lynndie England) actually has the leash around the neck of an Iraqi detainee who is lying prostrate on the ground. If we look at the image on the lower oven behind the soldier, we see the continuation of her image, showing the detainee with the leash around his neck.

The spatial positioning of this signifier (the woman) is higher than the man on the end of the leash. This is a reversal from the cultural norm that men are superior to women and that women are subservient to men (especially in certain cultures). We slowly become aware of the modality status of the image – this is something that is constructed. Her work is very multi-layered. Rosler has used many levels of representation in this image. Daniel Chandler, in his book, Semiotics for Beginners, explains the concept:

Barthes himself later gave priority to connotation, and in 1971 noted that it was no longer easy to separate the signifier from the signified, the ideological from the ‘literal’ (Barthes, Roland (1977): Image-Music-Text. p 166). In passing, we may note that this formulation underlines the point that ‘what is a signifier or a signified depends entirely on the level at which the analysis operates: a signified on one level can become a signifier on another level’ (Willemen, Paul (1994): Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, p 105). This is the mechanism by which signs may seem to signify one thing but are loaded with multiple meanings.

Semiotics for Beginners [online]

Election (Lynndie) (from the “Bring the War Home: House Beautiful” Series), 2004. Photomontage by Martha Rosler
fig 2 Election (Lynndie) (from the “Bring the War Home: House Beautiful” Series), 2004. Photomontage by Martha Rosler

I’m going to cut short my commentary on the exhibition here otherwise I will end up writing a critical essay on the image above and I still need to work on that for assignment 4. I would have liked to spend more time at this exhibition as I found Rosler’s work very fascinating. It seems the more one looks, the more one finds. She is scheduled for another exhibition in Seattle soon, so hopefully I can find time to make another trip down to the US to see that one. A few more of her images can be seen below.


Saddam's Palace (Febreze), 2004, Martha Rosler
fig 3 Saddam’s Palace (Febreze), 2004, Martha Rosler


House Beautiful: Giacometti from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home by Martha Rosler
Fig 4 House Beautiful: Giacometti from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home by Martha Rosler


Honors (Striped Burial) from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home by Martha Rosler
fig 5 Honors (Striped Burial) from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home by Martha Rosler


Reference List

Abu Ghraib Abuse Photos (2006) [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 January, 2016]

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners [online]. Available from: [Accessed 14 January, 2016]

Martha Rosler: Below the Surface [online]. Seattle Art Museum. Available from: [Accessed 30 December, 2015]


Martha Rosler [online]. Museum of Modern Art. Available from: [Accessed 13 January, 2015]

Thompson, Nato (2013). Making Art in a World of Ferment: A Conversation with Martha Rosler [online]. Creative Time Reports. Available from: [Accessed 14 January, 2016]


4 thoughts on “Martha Rosler: Below the Surface”

  1. There were three pictures in The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern that combined 50’s American interiors with East Asian guerrillas (the most striking had a mass of red guards advancing seen through a living room picture window; they worked as a sort of antithesis to the photos of US soldiers in Vietnamese villages. I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at here, but I’d certainly like to see more of Rosler (who had 4 collages inter Tate show…)


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