Martha Rosler

In the Place of the Public: Airport Series

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Date1983 -
Medium/DimensionsPhotographic series and text
CreditsCourtesy of the artist and Galerie Christian Nagel

Since the early 1980s Martha Rosler has been building up a photographic archive of airport interiors. Using a small point-and-shoot camera, she focuses attention on the types of spaces which are glanced over while the mind focuses instead on the journey’s end-point. Brashly lit check-in halls, bored passengers standing in front of glossy advertisements, narrow boarding bridges ready to funnel and dispense consumers onto aircrafts. Despite being built to accommodate large crowds of people, airports are not public places in the real sense. Rosler’s incisive eye reveals these to be highly controlled, even paranoid, environments, based on consumption and a big-brother aesthetic.

In what kind of history of space does the airport belong to? A historical reference point might be the (often violent) appropriation of common land into private ownership through the process of ‘enclosures’ in England between the 16th and 19th centuries. Nowadays enclosures need not be about land rights but rather the privatisation of public space (abstract or material) for aggressively pursued commercial interests. In the artist’s words: ‘I want to remind people that what is casually passed off as the functional really is a microcosm of many other forms of social experience. The ways in which social interactions and social experiences are recast, and the ways in which space does reflect other things about social life.’

The text phrases which run ‘over, under, around, and through’ the photographs expand upon the theme. While some evoke the airport’s atmosphere, others refer to the economic mechanisms which underpin the airline industry. Analysing the airport from both perspectives enables Rosler to picture the complex power relationships at play and think through the political implications of lived experience. In a world which dreams of total surveillance, photographing back can become a subversive act.