A Tag Sale at the Temple of Modernism

All photos: Installation view, Martha Rosler, “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale,” at the Museum of Modern Art (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s a garage sale at the Museum of Modern Art, and no, it’s not a high-end, designer consignment sale. Martha Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale is about as real as they come, from the racks of battered shoes to the “great dad” statuettes, and from the worn lingerie to the splattered cookbooks. One notable difference, I suppose, is that Rosler’s sale includes a car (“NO ENGINE!” the sign advertises). But don’t worry: all the paintings for sale are as kitschy and bad as any you’d find on the sidewalk.

Rosler first staged her artwork-cum–garage sale (or garage sale–cum-artwork?) in 1973. A lot has happened since then. For one, “shopping [has] moved from the hated object of the art world to a collusive element” of it, as the artist herself pointed out at the press preview. Art spaces — museums included — are no longer sacred temples free from the talk, reality, or pressures of the market; the exchange of money is an open topic. This makes the piece far less transgressive than it used to be.

What’s more, a lot has been said and done in MoMA’s atrium in the past few years, including Chinese artist Song Dong’s 2009 installation of the entire contents of his mother’s home. To wit, Rosler isn’t the first to fill the space with objects of ambiguous value.

Still, there’s something incredibly exciting about climbing those MoMA steps from the first floor and finding yourself faced with a maze of attractively laid-out junk — at least, if you’re a second-hand-shopping addict like me, and if you don’t mind that you just paid $25 to get in. In the preview, Rosler talked about how she won’t reveal what she does with the money she makes from the sales. “If we discuss where the money goes, then what walks you in the door is the motive of charity,” she said. “What I want to walk you in the door is desire.” From the “Save Money $” arrow banner to the welcome aisle of used furniture pretty much begging to be bought — I do need a new coffee table … — she has undoubtedly succeeded.

Worn lingerie

There’s a larger conversation to be had here, one society has been having basically since the beginning of capitalism, about the value of objects and the way emotional and monetary value correspond (or don’t). But that’s better started by each individual who decides to buy something at the sale. Rosler stresses that because she’s not a shopkeeper, she has to “retain some degree of absurdity” when it comes to pricing, so it’s up to you to haggle her down from $20 to $5 for those pink, flower-print sunglasses.

This time around, though, there’s the added twist that all these items are being sold at the world-famous MoMA. Does that give them added value? Does it make them worthy holiday presents, or even art? Maybe in a few weeks we’ll start seeing Christmas snow globes and old issues of Playboy showing up on eBay with a new, unexpected provenance in their descriptions: sold by the artist Martha Rosler in November 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Martha Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale is happening at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 30.

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