Traveling Garage Sale
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Generali Foundation, Vienna, 1999

In 1973, Martha Rosler held her first Traveling Garage Sale at the Art Gallery of the University of California. Clothing, books, toys, and household items were sold alongside personal items such as the artist’s private letters; her son’s baby shoes; and, more unconventionally, used diaphragms.

Casting the suburban garage sale as “an art form of contemporary society,” Rosler arbitrated the sale, while adopting the persona of a South California woman in a “hippie costume.” The sale was accompanied by an audio recording in the voice of this character, played on a  machine in plain sight, pondering how the garage sale evokes systems of value and quoting Marx on commodity fetishism.

Interrogating not only the economics of the garage sale but also those of the art market, Rosler located these issues within the gallery space, directing them toward questions of value and ownership in relation to art production. Even where the objects for sale were not the personal property of the artist, they became pieces of her installation and appendages of her persona. The portrait of the artist became re-framed as the arrangement of her personal things, “a metaphoric representation of the mind,” exposing “the dubious proposition that one is what one appears to own.”

Engaging generations of visitors in this exchange, Rosler has re-staged the sale at museums and even at an art fair since its original incarnation. Here, “commerce always remains in the present,” where the traveling garage sale reveals “a society in which social relations embody commodity relations.” As the installation has been transformed by new goods, the objects have become less personal, while the expectations of the museum-goer have become progressively oriented toward the experiential.

In its latest iteration, the garage sale was held in the atrium of MoMA in 2012.


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