November 18, 2012

Semiotics of the Yard Sale

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When I was a kid I generated most of my income in one of three ways. The first, the way that dominated my youngest years, was simply to beg from my mom, dad, grandmother, or any combination of the three until someone caved. I actually remember my dad inventing a system where I would get paid for each page that I read — a system that may have distorted traditional incentives enough to mold me into a future English major.The second was to mow lawns. Once I hit 12 or so and I was finally able to yank the starter rope forcefully enough and my dad trusted me with pouring oil and gasoline a few inches above a volatile spinning blade, I was made to mow the lawn every week for my exorbitant allowance — since my dad’s a labor lawyer I had long since internalized arguments for a living wage and threatened to unionize with my sister and dog.The third, though, was the classic neighborhood yard sale — every few months my family and I would rummage through our belongings and try to get rid of anything and everything without much consideration of sentimental value. Mostly I relied on old baseball mitts, scooters and Pokémon cards to rake in the big bucks, fueling a Taco Bell habit that followed me until high school wrestling.Many of you may have the same memories of early Saturday and Sunday mornings pulling blankets out over the driveway, praying for the rain to pass. Little did we know back then that we were participating in a truly iconic American pastime. This past weekend New York-based artist Martha Rosler, best known for video performance pieces like “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1974-75) and “Martha Rosler Reads Vogue,” (1982) and her Vietnam and Iraq War-themed photomontages, will debut her “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale” at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.The exhibit doesn’t provide the typical art museum silent shuffling experience. Instead, visitors will purchase tickets in the lobby like for any other exhibition, enter the museum’s atrium, and proceed to shop for the eclectic objects Ms. Rosler has amassed over the past few years after “performing” numerous other yard sales around the world (in some she has even sold personal objects like her old diaphragms). Prices are artificially inflated so the sale isn’t ransacked too quickly (and, presumably, because it’s MoMA and it is Art (with a capital A)), but the proceeds will go to charity and visitors are free to wander around and absorb the pastiche that thousands of commercial products create.Yard sales as a form of art sort of feels like Norman Rockwell-esque Americana — imagining Ms. Rosler traveling the world and arranging her pristinely collected kitschy ready-mades seems a peculiarly heartlandish overture. But there is something entirely different about Rosler’s sales and the ones I used to frequent in suburban Maryland. Rosler creates a parody, while, like it or not, my family, neighbors, and I created portraits.When a friendly neighbor stopped at my family’s yard sale, he was essentially taking a peek into our day-to-day lives, without the slightest clue as to what he might find. Does selling the Sega Dreamcast mean that I have finally gotten over my video game habit, or did I get a Gamecube for Chanukah and need extra money to buy Red Card 2003? Why were we selling our old living room sofa and what on earth were those stains on it? Was I getting rid of my football cleats because I had grown out of them or had I sworn off the game for good? The little inanities such as our favorite brands or former shoe sizes might seem like small potatoes, but they provide the only contrast to the monotones of the suburbs. These are the little idiosyncrasies that determine who will be bullied on the schoolyard and that have people swearing The Corrections is less novel and more folklore.I have yet to see Rosler’s exhibit, but to be successful she must take the personal and parody it to logical absurdity. Instead of a pair of Hey Arnold boxer shorts, this sale should have the whole dinette set. Instead of an original Gameboy, she should sell a package with not only the device, but also all of the Super Mario and Pokémon games (red, blue, green and yellow, I believe).Yard sales are a symbol of true American excess. We buy and buy and buy until we can’t fit anything else in our crummy little basements and then we sell it for pennies on the dollar to people who have no use for it so that we can start over. Rosler captures this with the beautiful dangling Stars and Stripes that tower over the exhibit.Land of the free, home of the brave. Also, home of the Whopper.

Original Author: Adam Lerner