– Spring/Summer 2007

If You Read Here... Martha Rosler's Library

Elena Filipovic

Tags: Donald Judd, Martha Rosler

A man's library is a sort of harem.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life (1860)

The truth is, I can't help but begin by mentioning the toilet paper. All wrinkled and white (none of the fancy double-ply lavender-coloured variety), and rarely torn neatly across the perforated lines, toilet paper kept the mark of pages in (dare I say?) many of Martha Rosler's books. These books - nearly eight thousand of them - were temporarily removed from the artist's home and shelved in impressive row after row in a cramped storefront space in New York's Lower East Side run by e-flux.1 There they stood, free and open to the public for months. The books were then packed and relocated to other venues, occupying reorganised rows in the Frankfurter Kunstverein and, later still, in a walk-up space in Antwerp as part of MuHKA's 'Academy, Learning from Art' exhibition.2

In an act of incredible generosity, one of America's most important living artists temporality dispossessed herself of the vast majority of her personal library so that it could be made available for consultation. No borrowing was possible, but the eclectic ensemble of books on economics, political theory, war, colonialism, poetry, feminism, science fiction, art history, mystery novels, children's books, dictionaries, maps and travel books, as well as photo albums, posters, postcards and newspaper clippings could be studied at will. Smart, decidedly political

  1. 15 November 2005-15 April 2006.

  2. Frankfurter Kunstverein, 30 May-13 August 2006; MuHKA, Antwerp, 15 September-26 November 2006. For each incarnation of the library, Rosler requested that it be housed in a walk-up space 'close to the street', both physically and conceptually. In the Antwerp version this meant that the library stood at conscious remove from the institution that had brought it there, and instead occupied the borrowed premises of the Nieuw Internationaal Cultureel Centrum (NICC), a space that was not far away, yet free from some of the former's institutional and architectural weight.

  3. See http://www.e-flux.com/projects/library/about.php (last accessed 20 February 2007). The books were returned to Rosler's house after the MuHKA exhibition was over.

  4. Cynthia Carr, 'Rethinking Everyday Life', Village Voice, 16-22 August 2000. http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0033,carr,17306,1.html (last accessed 20 February 2007).

  5. Conversation between the author, Dieter Roelstraete and Martha Rosler, January 2007.

  6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, New York: Vintage Books, 1973, p.xv.

  7. C. Carr, op. cit.

  8. M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972- 1977, Colin Gordon (ed.), New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, p.30.