In her classic 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler inhabits a character she has described as “an anti-Julia Child” who “replaces the domesticated ‘meaning’ of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration.” Reciting a deadpan domestic abecedarium—apron, bowl, chopper, dish—as she stares into the camera and proffers the inventoried items to her audience from behind a countertop, Rosler reappropriates the setting and accoutrements of food preparation to stage a personal rebellion against the drudgery of that odiously limiting category of gendered labor, “women’s work.” Rachel Libeskind’s similarly modest video What Happens in the Kitchen?, 2020—online for roughly two weeks in late June as part of programming presented by the Lower East Side gallery signs and symbols—undoubtedly shares certain critical impulses with its forty-five-year-old antecedent. But unlike Rosler’s brand of undistilled indignation, Libeskind’s work engages with the idea that the kitchen (and the cook) might, without contradiction, also be productively figured as a symbol of female introspection, creativity, desire, and kinship.
Libeskind’s eight-minute piece consists of an edited collection of short video clips depicting women cooking and eating during the pandemic. Shot by friends of the artist at her request, the footage is accompanied by a string of fragmented quotes drawn from (but not specifically attributed to) twenty female writers, artists, and scholars from vastly disparate backgrounds and perspectives, all spoken by computer voices and reiterated in captions at the bottom of the screen. The first words in the video (“I like to write down what happened even when nothing has happened”), heard as a woman sharpens a knife, turn out to be those of Chantal Akerman, whose indelible masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is arguably cinema’s single greatest meditation on the murderously stultifying repetitions of domesticity. Released the same year as Rosler’s video, the roughly three-and-a-half-hour-long work bores in on the routines of a single mother in Brussels, played by Deplhine Seyrig, who spends long stretches of time in her kitchen making meals for herself and her son in a kind of affectual fugue state. But a bit of detective work revealed that the passage quoted is not from that film but rather from Akerman’s less well-known 2013 memoir My Mother Laughs, a sort of companion text to her melancholy final film about the two women’s relationship, No Home Movie (2015). This discovery was only the first of many epiphanies produced by my attempts to track down the provenance of the various bits of language woven into the artist’s video. The core of Libeskind’s deceptively straightforward project lies in this ancillary spectatorial research—a ramifying exercise that has the potential to lead viewers into entire dazzling oeuvres as they attempt to trace small unfamiliar snippets.
As the scene moves from kitchen to kitchen and from locked-down friend to locked-down friend, we see our own private household activities reiterated—melon cut, parsley juiced, vanilla extract measured out, rhubarb washed, meatballs mixed, standing water scooped from a sink and poured over window boxes full of flowers—while hearing bits from Audre Lorde’s 1977 text “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Laura Mulvey’s 1996 essay collection Fetishism and Curiosity, Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1987 poem “Truth,” and Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace (1952). A blender is turned on as a few phrases from Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) play in the background; flour is sifted over lines out of Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Elm.” Taken together, the brief passages form a sort of stealth syllabus, a library of concepts and language that spreads and lingers long after the short bare-bones video has ended. Through her semiotics of the kitchen, Libeskind aims to satisfy a different but equally fundamental form of hunger, one for ideas, and provides sustenance not just for the stomach but also for the spirit.