Swap shop: the stories behind six objects in Pia Camil’s New Museum installation

Find out why visitors brought a glass chicken, a Mardi Gras wig, a vintage hat, a diary page, a quilt and a package of seaweed for the artist’s first solo show


Pia Camil is making every museumgoer’s dream come true: she is opening a gift shop where everything is free. But if you want to take an object home, you must bring something special to leave in its place.

For her first solo presentation at a New York museum, the Mexico City-based artist is creating an interactive bazaar in the New Museum’s lobby (13 January-17 April). On five designated days during the exhibition’s run, Camil will invite the public to exchange a personal object for another unique item in the installation.

The monetary value of the object is insignificant. Camil wants objects “of power, of aesthetic interest and of poignancy,” she says. “It is a risk—we don’t actually know if this is going to work.” The exhibition’s title, A Pot for a Latch, refers to the potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony practiced by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

The museum hosted a kick-off event last month to source objects for the initial display. The staff offered the first 100 visitors a limited edition, artist-designed sweatshirt in exchange for a personal object. (Camil is perhaps best known for the colourful ponchos she gave out free to Frieze New York visitors last year, making her sweatshirts a hot commodity.) The museum ran out of sweatshirts within the first three-and-a-half hours.

“People brought items of all shapes and sizes, and each one came with a particular backstory, which were often quite moving,” says Margot Norton, the museum’s associate curator.

We spoke with visitors—including students, artists and one very in-the-know five-year-old—who lined up to participate. Here are six of our favourite objects and the stories behind them.

Lauren Bille, accessories buyer for Lululemon Lab

What she brought: A glass chicken
The backstory: The chicken “has been with me for a long time”, Bille says. She bought it at the discount store Ross when she was growing up in San Diego, California. “I thought it was cool and vintage,” she says. Years later, it was one of the few items that survived a fire in her storage vault. “I bought it thinking that I could imagine it in my kitchen as an adult. Now I am one. I felt like it was time [to give it away].”