Martha Rosler

Martha Rosler, Liverpool Delving and Driving, 2004

Martha Rosler, Liverpool Delving and Driving, 2004

From her pioneering feminist and anti-war works of the 1970s to the present, Martha Rosler’s (b. Brooklyn, New York) art occupies a seminal position in recent radical art practice. With analytical precision and wit, her practice has embraced multiple media, critical writing and public interventions, engaging with pressing social and political issues of the day. The parameters of art – its subject matter, its production and its reception – are all there to be contested.

In works such as the video Domination and the Everyday (1978) the inseparability of personal experience from political control is exposed. Rosler’s large-scale collective projects include If You Lived Here (1989), whose diverse participants – artists, community groups, activists and others – interrogated housing, homelessness and planning in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, revealing the possibility of art as a forum in which to challenge simplified representations of urban reality.

Rosler regarded the city of Liverpool as ‘art’s habitat’, and for International 04 she continued her examination of the urban landscape. Seeking to make visible underground elements of Liverpool history, she guided visitors through the city by means of a bus tour. This metaphorical subterranean mapping of the city drew on the rich layering of events and indeed myths that have helped to construct our view of Liverpool. What is left unsaid interested Rosler as much as the visible evidence of imperial expansion reflected in buildings and street names. The port’s slave history, for example, remains mostly hidden. What we see instead are ‘the effects of the capital generated by the commodification of Africans, accreted in Liverpool’s architecture and public works’.

The story of the flood of Irish immigrants into the city is also largely concealed – obliterated long ago, like the desperate underground digs sheltering many of the new arrivals. Rosler’s archaeological approach to Liverpool, ‘rich with burrowings and tunnellings on the one hand and cover-ups and uncoverings on the other’, was apt in a city whose built environment extends below ground, with subterranean engineering matching constructions above ground: road and rail tunnels under the Mersey; Williamson’s mysterious warren of tunnels beneath Edge Hill; the War Room, from where the Battle of the Atlantic was orchestrated; and the cellars of the Maritime Museum telling stories of enslavement and emigration.

The original underground site of the Cavern Club has long since been filled in; however, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour bus still trundles on and a Yellow Duckmarine guides you through an amphibious sightseeing tour of Liverpool’s waterfront. In this context of a city – now World Heritage Site and European Capital of Culture in 2008 – anxious to tell its stories to the world, Rosler’s bus tour made for a less comfortable ride, in which contradictions of the past were revealed in the excavations of the present.

Martha Rosler at Liverpool Biennial 2004

Liverpool Delving and Driving, 2004
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2004
Exhibited in Public realm