First look

The Adam Art Gallery in Wellington is currently exhibiting Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. Created in the mid-1970s, the work consists of 48 panels, mostly presented in pairs of images and text – black-and-white photographs taken on the Bowery (which at the time was a New York skid row), and a long series of different words and phrases relating to intoxication and drunkenness.

Unexpectedly, and deliberately, the photographs do not include depictions of people but focus on building frontages and the street itself. The absence of the Bowery’s inhabitants reflects a refusal to objectify them or emblematise them; unable to focus on people, whether as individuals or as types, the viewer has to reconceive ‘the problem’. Meanwhile the text, insisting on its narrow focus, mirrors the way in which ‘the problem’ becomes the lens through which we look at sites and people like the Bowery’s. (It also suggests a high level of interest in intoxication in our culture, and reflects the linguistic creativity used in coming up with novel ways of expressing it; I was struck, too, in this context by the fact that two of the synonyms for being drunk were ‘out of the picture’ and ‘gone’.)

Though in most cases a photograph appears alongside a panel of text, the sequence actually begins with three black/blank panels rather than an image. I’m not sure why; from memory, the text here refers to the happier end of intoxication – an interim state, perhaps, not so directly relatable to the dead end of skid row. The final piece of text is the title, like a conclusion or a summation – the first approximation of a caption announcing the subject of the work.

Geoffrey Batchen noted in a public forum at the gallery at the weekend that the wording is not given alphabetically, though there is one panel which includes a series of words beginning with ‘s’ – I think one of them may have been ‘sloshed’, the repeated sibilance certainly sounding sloshy. He also noted that the text is actually presented in photographic form (typed, then photographed), not in the form of typed sheets of paper. I imagine this was for practical reasons – for example, in the mid-1970s, pre-word processing, this would have been the easiest way for a photographer to reproduce and/or change the scale of a piece of text – but on the other hand, I found it interesting that I hadn’t noticed it…

The work has appeared over the years in several forms – exhibition, book and slide-show presentation. The first version of the book resulted from someone seeing the work in a presentation. Another wondering: what form did this presentation take – text and image alternating on-screen? Was the text spoken – was there another spoken accompaniment? What kind of experience of the work did it offer?

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