Martha Rosler’s Greatest Garage Sale Ever

Martha Rosler, the multimedia performance artist, has been staging garage sales in art-gallery settings since the 1970s. And if you have ever watched her brandishing a knife or a rolling pin in “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” her classic, gallery-worthy six-minute feminist video from 1975, you know that she makes brilliant art out of the commonplace.

This November, Rosler’s “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale” installation had a 13-day run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Visitors were simultaneously in an actual garage sale (the objects on display were all tagged, and you could acquire just about everything but the display tables) and inside a piece of performance art. At MoMA, Rosler meticulously displayed objects ranging from underwear and a decades-old “sanitary napkin” belt to a Mercedes-Benz automobile missing its engine. She was present daily at the garage sale, to interact with attendees and to talk about the role of commodities in contemporary life. “We all start very early desiring objects” said Rosler. Although the critique is never heavy handed—the garage sale is too much fun for that — Rosler did reference philosopher
Herbert Marcuse at the MoMA press preview and talked about “the affective relationship between seller and buyer — even though it’s a transaction.” The artist understands that, as she puts it, “We fetishize commodities. Objects have more vibrant lives than the people who produce them.”

The humble nature of most garage-sale items, and the intimate glance into the seller’s life that these objects provide, really invite a feminist analysis. “The garage sale typically was where women could step out of the domestic space and move onto the lawn — a liminal space. Women can recoup value” from the items they’re willing to discard. Of course garage sales are not everyone’s teacup. “I’m a kid from Brooklyn,” she said. “I live in Brooklyn. I don’t know from ‘consignment’. Turns out that’s how the high end disposes of things — not at a garage sale.”