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Youtube is a surprisingly excellent place to see art, and not just the latest glitchy gif set your neighbor came up with. The site is full of historical performance videos, all just a click away. One of the greats is Martha Rosler’s performance “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), in which the artist goes through an alphabet’s worth of kitchen implements for a blistering feminist critique of traditional gender roles.

You might know Rosler better for her “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” series of collaged works that mingled Vietnam war photographs and imagery with the 70s-era visual cliches of well-kept homes and housewives. A vacuum-wielding figure pulls back drapes to reveal a phalanx of soldiers. A pristine couch explodes. The artist’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” performance presents a different artistic approach, but the core of Rosler’s goal is the same: to disrupt the space of the stereotypical “home” and inject some of the surreal violence that underlays a society of oppression.

It’s interesting that “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” with its dry, black and white documentation and politically aware self-consciousness, has garnered 72,000 hits on Youtube. But Rosler’s piece also has a sense of humor that’s hard to miss. This is art well-suited for the media generation, a quick, ironic one-liner (angry woman sorts through her kitchen) that turns into something deeper: iconic feminist critique that appropriates the space of the home in order to disrupt it. Totally sneaky, and totally worthy of an internet meme. I could see this one on Jezebel.

Rosler’s meme-worthiness has not gone unnoticed. “Semiotics of the Kitchen”  has spawned a host of imitators, including the popular “Semiotics of the Art Student” by Kersti Bury as well as “Semiotics of the Bicycle” by Nickey Robare, a hilarious play on the sexualization of bikes that should be a hit with the fixed-gear crowd. Don’t miss the seat-hand insertion. These tributes, or parodies, give a new vitality to the original and place it within the contemporary context of new media and ideas of “going viral,” a fitting place for a subversive, lo-fi piece of art.

In the next months, I’ll be exploring art’s presence on Youtube, posting art pieces and performances that now survive better online than in textbooks. For more immediate Youtube fun, check out Brent Burket’s Youtube retrospectives, entitled Archive + Anarchy.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

One reply on “Tuesday Video: Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen”

  1. I can’t say I have ever liked the blase attitude she takes to the very obvious references to violence near the end of the video. Its always rubbed me the wrong way.

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