‘You See So Many Lives Lived’: Watch Artist Rose Salane Gather New Yorkers’ Lost Objects to Search for Their Owners

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Rose Salane's Lost & Found.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

If you’ve ever lost an object on the New York City subway—an Airpod, necklace, pencil, or keychain—and assumed it was simply swallowed up by the massive transit system, think again. Since she was a child, New York-based artist Rose Salane has been fascinated by “objects that reflect the everyday movements of people throughout the city,” and she finds a lot of those objects—you guessed it—from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

As it turns out, all of the bobs and baubles lost in transit are accumulated by the MTA, and if they haven’t been claimed after a year, are auctioned off to the public. Many of them then become the foundation of Salane’s contemporary art practice.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, the artist explains her interest in lost objects, and what they say about the lives they represent.

Salane grew up in the Bronx, and spent long hours commuting to her school in Manhattan every day, watching fellow passengers as they made their way through the pulsing city streets to get to work, or school, or an appointment. “I wanted just to understand the experience of living in New York” she says, explaining why she was drawn to the Asset Recovery auctions put on by the MTA, where in one instance she bought 94 unclaimed rings.

Laid out on a stark white backdrop, the heap of rings appeared to Salane as stand ins for the people they once belonged to and the meaning they once held, even if they have little or no monetary value.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Rose Salane's Lost & Found.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Rose Salane’s Lost & Found.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

“How do we determine something is worth something or of some importance to a place or a person?” Salane asks in the video. In her attempts to find answers, she consults a psychic to derive some information based on the energy of the lost rings, and in another case, swabs the objects for mitochondrial DNA in order to find relatives of the original owners. Her efforts rarely results in any leads, however.

“When you look at these objects, you see so many different people and you so many different stories, you see so many lives lived,” Salane says. “I’ve always been interested in how an object could retell a personal history but also the familiarity in them that can trigger more questions and stories. These objects are just a small soundbite of a large chaotic city.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series New York Close Up, below. Rose Salane’s work is featured in the The Whitney Biennial, on view through September 5th, 2022.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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