Two contrasting films made 40 years apart currently showing at the Photographers Gallery tell a salutary story of the changing media representation of women. The 1975 scuzzy monochrome performance video by Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen seems to come from a distant era to Joanne, Simon Fujiwara’s glossy film portrait of the self-styled social media “chameleon” who also happens to be his ex art teacher.
Rosler’s film is rightly a classic of feminist video art. In this parody of the TV domestic goddess still popular in Youtube cookery demos, Rosler alphabetically names and presents 26 kitchen accessories and mimes their use with varying degrees of violence and frustration. A carving knife is wielded with intent to kill. She plays this with a deadpan sincerity which gives it a humorous edge while delivering a muted warning: a fightback against the prison of women’s gender assigned roles is nigh. Fancifully I imagine the title as an implied critique of the hollow theorising of the feminist academics of the 1970s: “We want action not analysis”. But Rosler herself sees it simply as a “tongue-in-cheek” comment on the semiotic approach. Since then although the kitchen is more likely to be a shared space it is still a gendered one. A male cook has a different set of semiotics.
Spool forward 40 years and the dilemmas posed by female role representation becomes even more confused. Joanne Salley suffered her 15 minutes of ignominious fame through the prurient interest of the tabloids in her breasts gained through a leaked photoshoot she had thought private. The salacious newsworthiness of this story was ramped up by her role as a teacher at one of the UK’s most prestigious boy’s public schools, Harrow. Fujiwara’s film investigates the many contradictions inherent in the fall out from this exposure. It made her a name that she could exploit on the celebrity circuit but her social media profile now needed to show “not what I look like, but what I do.” The most telling moment in the film is an encounter between Joanne and an actor who she is briefing to play an improvised scene in which he will take on the role of a personal brand manager advising her on this process. Is this meant as a recreation of a real meeting in her life or a repudiation of the pressures on her to concoct an online persona? We get the strange feeling that Joanne’s Instagram account is as much a prison as Rosler’s kitchen.
The artworks are on show at the Photographers’ Gallery until the 29th January.