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A young woman shod in fashionably clunky shoes leans into an impromptu clothing rack—a long wire stretching some 12 feet—under a sign screaming, “Sale! Sale! Sale!” Although she’s got T-shirts, vests, button-downs, and skirts to choose from, the woman eventually settles on a wrinkled blouse stained green and brown. It’s hideous.

“Your total is $1.99,” says the clerk who rings her up. Even last season’s Old Navy wouldn’t go for so little. The woman looks pleased. She forks over a pair of dollar bills, and the cashier drops a penny in her palm.

Two hundred and fifty miles south of Barney’s, I’m witnessing the performance-art piece Sale! Sale! Sale! just off the sky-lit courtyard of the Organization of American States building downtown. Women and men are clutching clothes hangers in one hand and hors d’oeuvres in the other in celebration of the opening of artist Carolina Mayorga’s exhibit, “Tales of Death.”

The show features wood constructions, drawings, and found-object sculptures that examine death and violence in Mayorga’s native Colombia. On a far wall, visitors take part in Sale! Sale! Sale! by buying ugly, frayed clothing tagged with the names of Colombian dead.

The 30-year-old artist, who has lived in Alexandria for the past two years, shopped thrift stores from Kansas (where she earned her M.F.A. from the University of Kansas) to Colombia to find the clothes, which she treats with paint, starch, and shellac. The stains, the artist says, are meant to make the garments into art objects. They also look a lot like sweat and blood. “The colors symbolize [body fluids],” she explains, “[but] they are not trying to fake blood.”

My eye catches on a black ruffled blouse, size 12, crusty and stiff. The tag dangling at the sleeve reads “Clara Ines Galindo, Muerta 38 anos.” It’s been “marked down” to $2.99 from the original price of $49.99. Greg Svitil, an art-history student at George Mason University who is playing the clerk tonight, is eyeing it, too. “I might buy this one myself,” Svitil muses.

“It’s scary,” remarks Mariah Josephy, president of the Washington Sculptors Group, while observing folks buying up the macabre shirts like hotcakes. “What are they going to do, hang it on a wall like a trophy?” she asks.

“I think of them as art,” says gallerygoer Heather Nupdal. “I want to hang mine up.” Tonight she’s purchased four items, including a flowered dress and a child-sized shirt. “Half are mine; half are for my boyfriend,” she explains.

“The piece is about the mixed feelings [of] consumerism,” Mayorga explains. Every piece symbolizes a life that’s been snuffed out—mostly young folks killed in drug- or poverty-related violence. “What you’re buying is death,” she says of her memento mori. So why are people snapping these clothes up? Mayorga shrugs: “Because it’s cheap.” —Jessica Dawson

“Tales of Death” is on view until Oct. 20, 2000, at the Organization of American States, 17th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.