Lena Sawyer

Still from: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. Video

Figure 1. Still from: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. Video

Performance is a form of conceptual art that draws from a number of different media. In performance art, the artist expands her role as producer, since she implements her body as an instrument in the work itself. Works in this genre also rely on elements such as time, setting, audience, context, and sound to provoke visceral and emotional responses in their viewers.1 Performance seeks to create a more immediate experience for its viewer and open up the arts to a wider audience who can, in turn, potentially feel more directly involved in the production of the work.

Some art historians mark the beginning of performance art with the Italian Futurist movement and works such as Luigi Russolo’s “noise-sound” music (c.1909-1910).2 Dadaists working in Zurich also performed at Cabaret Voltaire, a performance space organized by Hugo Ball.3 Ball performed recitations of unintelligible poems such as Karawane (1916) that resisted typical language.4 These early forms of performance art were later followed by Bauhaus, Fluxus, Happenings, Feminist performance, and many others.

By using the human body, performance can challenge the perceived limits of human physicality through works that involve endurance or physical pain. In Chris Burden’s Five Day Locker (1971) for example, the artist locked himself into a small gym locker for five consecutive days. By doing so, he challenged his body and mind to exist under circumstances that, to many, would seem impossible.

Burden’s work demonstrates how contested the definition of performance art is, due to its nature as a medium that seeks to defy the limits of any given medium, even the body. Combined with the way in which artists use activities that may appear to be entirely quotidien in any number of locations, for paying, non-paying, and accidental audiences, it’s hard to say what is and isn’t performance art.5

Actions that may seem commonplace are often placed under examination, through a manipulation of context or time. The artist Martha Rosler acted out a situation that seems incredibly banal in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). In this video, she stands in a kitchen while wearing an apron, demonstrating the various uses of kitchen utensils [Figure 1]. However, by modeling their function with violent gestures but without any perceivable facial or vocal emotion, she reveals the contrived, meaningless, and often infuriating tasks allotted to women confined to the domestic sphere.6

In each of these works, there is an exploration on both the part of the artist and the viewer which encourages them both to consider what has been thought of as ‘natural’ behavior, and then to question it. The works use the bodies of the artists as instruments, which contain meaning due to their identities and physical forms. Performance may offer alternative ways of thinking and acting that were once deemed unnatural or impossible. For example, in the past, women were considered to be genetically inclined toward housework, a notion examined and challenged in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).7 Rosler’s work reveals the constructed nature of this perception by showing the actions to be both demeaning and repetitive with little thoughtful intention behind them. By making forceful movements with each utensil, she underscores the hidden aggression required to maintain all gender roles.

Rosler’s work may appear to be “bad acting,” as it is devoid of the behaviors many would have assumed of a housewife, constructed through media representations of the ‘ideal woman’ such as Julia Child. Indeed, the kind of performance that would infuriate theatergoers, in which the performative element is clear – read: “bad acting” – is what makes them effective in creating a critique of social expectations that would otherwise go unnoticed, looked over as “normal.”8 In this way, Rosler’s blank facial expression and unexpected movements actively counter these socially presupposed images of the jovial housewife.

Performance has played a role in moving society forward, even as its function and appearance may change.9 Semiotics of the Kitchen contributed to the wider feminist movement that continues to this day while contemporary performance pieces are direct results of daily life and experience and may aim to disgust, annoy, or uplift their viewers, but all with an intention of altering perception.


  1. Klaus Groh, “Performance Art: What Is It?,” Leonardo 14: 1 (January 1, 1981): 37.
  2. Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto, 1913),” trans. Robert Filliou (Something Else Press, 1967),
  3. “Performance Art Movement, Artists and Major Works,” The Art Story, accessed March 28, 2015,
  4. Claire Bishop and Boris Groys, “Bring the Noise,” May 1, 2009,
  5. An especially interesting meditation on the limits of performance is Robert W. Sweeny’s “‘This Performance Art Is for the Birds:’ ‘Jackass,’ ‘Extreme’ Sports, and the De(con)struction of Gender,” Studies in Art Education 49: 2 (January 1, 2008): 136–46.
  6. “U of M Student Responds to ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’,” Crosscuts (blog), November 29, 2011,
  7. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963).
  8. Linda Frye Burnham, “‘High Performance,’ Performance Art, and Me,” The Drama Review: TDR 30: 1 (April 1, 1986): 32-35.
  9. A discussion of the continuing legitimacy of performance art can be found in Josette Féral and Carol Tennessen, “What Is Left of Performance Art? Autopsy of a Function, Birth of a Genre,” Discourse 14:2 (April 1, 1992): 142–62.