Knowing one’s way around the kitchen is one of the better life skills to acquire; eating is, after all, a pretty nice thing to do from time to time. Yet when perpetually busying oneself in the kitchen, whisking roux and basting roasts, is expected of one— not based on a personal choice to pursue the vagaries of classical French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, but on one’s possession of two X chromosomes— that’s not such a nice thing. In 1975, a young American artist named Martha Rosler expressed similar sentiments on video, producing a rather seminal and often elaborated upon contemporary performance-based art piece in the process.
Semiotics of the Kitchen features Rosler as a self-described “anti-Julia Child” swapping culturally-embedded meanings of cooking utensils for a new “lexicon of rage and frustration.” From A is for gingerly placing on an apron, to an increasingly volatile, slashy, stabby X, Y, Z, Rosler acts out an alphabetical roll call of familiar objects on the countertop before her, pairing them with unconventional, combattively staccato pantomimes and body language to emphasise just how assumed women’s exclusive role in feeding their husbands and offspring is.
In truth, the study of semiotics can be a snore until the brain has a chance to sort out all the stodgy vocabulary involved, but understanding how signs, symbols and gestures translate into shared significance on interpersonal, even global, levels can be as rewarding having the know-how to poach some mighty good eggs. And though Rosler’s satyrical cooking demonstration is simply staged and grainy, a relic predating the dawn of high-definition, the six-odd minutes of evenly-paced footage remains compelling in a sinister “what will she do next?” and “I hope G isn’t for gas burner” sort of way.
Of course, it’s Rosler’s ironic and frank message, not cinematography, that will remain most relevant. She likely managed to scare a few off their breakfast for a day or two in the mid-seventies, finding her artistic voice in the torrential surge of feminism that washed over the era. Students of art history in the decades since have learned to associate her name with other giants of socially-engaged practices. And surely we could stand to have an intimidatory fork poked at us today, this time of cracking glass ceilings, utterly reversed roles at home and in the workplace and emerging definitions and clashing expectations of gender itself.
Source: Electronic Arts Intermix, Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler