Semiotics of the Kitchen



Semiotics of the Kitchen

by Martha Rosler
Performance art, video art

View a still from the artwork →

A woman brandishes a kitchen knife, holding it up to the camera. In several sharp slashes, she cuts the air in front of her. The flawed quality of the footage serves only to render the glinting motion of the blade all the more jagged and violent.  Grainy and glitchy, the moving image of the monochrome film is corroded by bleached lines and blunt focus. A few moments later, our antagonist disarms, setting the weapon down atop a steadily accumulating pile of clutter.

The work consists of a single, almost entirely stationary shot that unfolds over six minutes. Within this short window, a gamut of items is demonstrated to us. In the stilted monotony of the sequence, the video suggests the archive footage of a badly dated cookery show. Each of the objects we are presented with is wielded with a ferocity at odds with the domestic setting. Her expression inscrutable, the artist may appear to accept her place in the kitchen, but as we turn to leave her there, we would do well to watch our backs.

Words by Elizabeth Brown

Semiotics of the Kitchen follows a strictly imposed structure, with one action and noun given for each letter from A to T. The alphabet is presented as a pervasive ordering system, a set of symbols that shape how we construct and understand the world. While the video’s visuals mimic a cookery show, its didactic approach suggests that it is educating young children. Screened in the classroom, such instructive films allege to offer straightforward lessons: this is an apron, this is a bowl. But hidden behind these inoffensive informational titbits, harmful social norms can be perpetuated.

As we sit on the floor before her, Martha Rosler wipes the slate clean and teaches us anew. She adopts a familiar role in a household setting, as female chef in a quaint kitchen, but her behaviour subverts. As she flicks, snaps, and stabs her way through her utensils, she condemns oppressive gender expectations, demonstrating how an individual can upset limiting roles from within. For the six letters after 'T', Rosler provides her own actions, adding one more for luck. This final movement, a comic shrug, is both a deflection of criticism and a playful act of defiance.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Watch the video here. Read more on the MoMA website. Cassie Packard has written an article about Semiotics of the Kitchen hereAnother Gaze has interviewed Martha Rosler, as has Paco Barrágan for Art Pulse Magazine.

Question of the day

Is the alphabet a system of oppression? Share your thoughts on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Wouldn't we be oppressed without an alphabet? Literacy enables expression.

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Twitter →) 

Inherently oppressive or not, it can be exploited – the gatekeepers of language can manipulate the alphabet’s limits for their own benefit.

– John Wadsworth, Silent Frame's Editor-in-Chief (via Facebook →)

Read more: Video art