Served Cold


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Imagine yourself as a child, frolicking through your parents’ back yard and digging up worms. Your mother calls you in from the kitchen for dinner and you bound in through the back door, smelling the roast she’s been tending to for the past few hours. At the table your father sits reading the newspaper, your sister fidgeting with a bow in her hair. Before you is the same familiar spread: off-white plates, clear glasses, spotless silverware, uniform serving utensils, and of course, the butter dish. You think nothing of the materials off of which you shovel food into your mouth, moving as quickly as possible to resume your outdoor activities. For hours your mother slaved over the stove to prepare your meal, but that won’t cross your mind until present day when, as an adult, you prepare meals for yourself and maybe even your own children. Now is a time when you’ve come to understand the worth of quality Tupperware, the importance of a sturdy teakettle. 

This summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can take your newfound appreciation for kitchenware to another level. “The Main Dish” is composed of display cases plainly contrived so as to draw focus on the objects within them, like original Tupperware or decades old decanters. The arrangements evoke a strange feeling of appreciation for kitchenware as art, as many of the items are expertly crafted yet have obvious functionality. The show centers around the notion that the gadgets, cutlery, and dishware in today’s kitchens mirror the qualities of ideal homemakers: “polished, efficient, organized/contained, decorative/entertaining, and clean/tidy.”

The preceding scene may seem a bit idealistic, but that’s more or less how I spent my childhood days. My mother would concoct delicious meals and keep our home near spotless because, as a stay-at-home mom, that was her job. At one time, she was a working woman, but opted to stay home once I was born. This was common for mothers during that time, but today it’s not always the case. Women seem to be more career-oriented, and more fathers are staying home with the kids while mom works, or children are spending more time in daycare.

Looking back on the tight ship my mom ran while I was growing up, it’s hard to compare her to the adjectives used to describe housewives in “The Main Dish.” I fondly remember her poring over the slow-cooker in her plush robe, sipping coffee out of a worn travel mug, humming R&B songs. She wasn’t the type of woman to wear a nice dress and heels around the house while doing laundry or unloading the dishwasher, but she certainly knew what she was doing.

Martha Rosler, a feminist and New York-based performance artist, also knew how to run a household. She created the video “Semiotics of the Kitchen” in 1975, which earned her a place in the PMA’s exhibition. Her words echo through the vast room full of glass display cases as she runs through the alphabet of cooking equipment (apron, bowl, chopper), covering a great many utensils. But she isn’t happy about it. Despite her clear knowledge of how to properly use each object, she remains apathetic and sometimes angry throughout the video. More than once she swings a knife through the air, stabbing at what I can only guess is the intangible pain a woman feels while forced to be polished, efficient, organized, contained, decorative, entertaining, clean, and tidy all at once while in the kitchen.

Of course, I’m speculating. She also appears to be quite experienced with the icepick.

But who is Martha Rosler, and why did she make the video? As I said before, she is a New York performance artist. She is also a professor, writer, and photographer, in addition to a community voice on a variety of issues “from airports and roads to housing and gentrification,” as her website describes. Her son, Josh Neufeld, is a cartoonist and graphic novelist. Born in the mid-sixties, Josh would have been about eight years old when his frustrated mom created “Semiotics of the Kitchen.” Rosler doesn’t exude the “ideal homemaker” classifications. In fact, she seems disheveled in the video. That’s no surprise, as she was busy being an exhibiting artist and internationally renowned lecturer in the 1970s. The images lining the walls of the exhibition depict 1950s-style housewives, with their composed hairdos and carefully tied aprons, details Rosler did not possess in “Semiotics.” Why, then, is her video included?

Ultimately, Martha Rosler’s video shows us that housewives are more than worker bees, more than just the hand stirring the pot of soup. If nothing else, the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art contains great pieces of historic and artistic materials, meant to provoke each visitor’s own views on what they see before them. Strolling through the display cases, I thought back to my mother during my childhood. She was always slaving over delicious meals and keeping the house spotless. I could have seen any of her glassware or array of tools in the exhibition, and while we all love her for her hard work, she wasn’t of the same grain as Martha Rosler.

From a young woman’s point of view, some of the perceptions of a model housewife are overwhelming. Juxtaposed with the very tools housewives have used to entertain and uphold their supposed duties, the six-minute alphabet captures simultaneously the knowledge and exasperation a homemaker might feel. Rosler may have expressed some disdain at her role as a housewife, but she has gone on to realize a number of achievements beyond her home. Her video speaks volumes about her views on womanhood, but maybe her life serves as the best example.

Ambitious, goal-oriented, convivial, dynamic, unique. Now those are adjectives. • 30 July 2014