Yuji Agematsu: 1995 & 2003
On ViewMiguel Abreu Gallery
May 1 – June 29, 2019
It’s debatable if walking, in and of itself, is art. But the “idea” of walking as art has a pedigree that stretches back to the heyday of Conceptual art. Richard Long, Stanley Brouwn, and others, made private walks and completed their gestures as art by presenting documentary evidence of their actions. Brouwn once described walking as a dissolution into space, one in which the boundary between the environment and oneself is relinquished. As art, walking became an extreme frontier of personal experience, objectified. In the early ’80s, in his rugged performance, One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoor Piece), Tehching Hsieh took a walk in NYC that lasted a year, during which time he lived entirely outside, without shelter or assistance. A few years later, in 1985, Yuji Agematsu began his daily walks in NYC, which he documents with meticulous drawings, maps, and notes. Additionally, he collects what he terms “accidental objects” or “desirable debris.”
Agematsu began taking walks, not specifically for one reason, but as a means to shake off the day job, to clear his mind, and to reinvigorate himself. The walks became a daily practice, as did collecting things along the way and, subsequently, preserving and archiving the findings. As a boy he had roamed forests by his home in Japan and foraged insects and other interesting stuff. The impulses of childhood contributed to his methodology as an artist and his propensity to physically engage with his environment became a means to understand the world by quantifying it.
In this, his second exhibition at Miguel Abreu, Agematsu presents his complete archives for two different years: 1995 and 2003. Objects on display include basic maps that chart each day’s walk (for almost all the days of each of the two years); exquisite abstract ink drawings that relate rhythmic mark-making to his own steps along self-prescribed routes; and small notebook drawings that record abstract shapes of objects that attract his attention. The main event, however, are the discarded things that found their way into his possession on one or another of his daily walks, and came to rest in hundreds and hundreds of miniature still life arrangements composed inside transparent containers. Everything is small, yet it’s hugely overwhelming! In 1995, Agematsu organized each day’s haul in little four-inch Ziploc bags. Each month’s worth of baggies, all contents quite visible, is presented in a grid on a steel-backed wall unit, like a de facto calendar. In 2003, he deposited the day’s spoils in cellophane wrappers slipped off cigarette boxes. These “zips,” as he refers to them, are displayed as monthly sets in immaculate Plexiglas shelving units.
The debris is funky; some of it, in the older sealed Ziploc bags, borders on nasty. But, the presentation devices are divine. In combination, they suggest alchemical transformation: from dross to art, from worthless to good-to-go again. There’s little reward in dwelling on how beautifully ruinous and poignant it all is; or in thinking about the insane amount of time and attention his stuff requires should we take the challenge to look at everything. Yet, it’s clear. The emphasis on transparency and visibility signals to viewers that we need to deal with the actual accumulations as a primary point of engagement. Is the onus really on us to take it all in, piece by piece? This is weird, given that the insignificant bits of litter that catch Agematsu’s eye are hardly worth looking at to begin with. Most are deteriorated beyond recognition. We might marvel at their extreme fragility, but we have to wonder—out there in the street, would we even see this detritus? Everything is insignificant. Most of it is dull, the color of asphalt or cement or city dirt. Oh, there’s a bit of candy sucker, or a pastel piece of discarded gum, or a snippet of a wrapper that broadcasts fluorescent color. Wouldn’t it all get screened out from our field of vision at the level of precognition? All the same, there is fugitive beauty in incredibly delicate details—a little tangle of hair, a nuanced edge on a torn piece of paper. The more we are drawn in—however incidental our looking may be—the more we register the passage of time measured against Agematsu’s durational focus and fortitude.
Arising from the literalness of the gleanings, there is room for metaphor. The tsunami effect of the detritus mirrors a sustained plunge into the dead-end zone of the manufactured universe, and has the potential to tell dirty truths about commodity culture, waste, and our own oblivious attitude about it all. There’s no denying that Agematsu’s miniature still lifes can be read as contemporary vanitas, but that doesn’t seem to be a primary agenda. In a conversation with Phong Bui, published in the May 2017 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Agematsu confirmed he’s “not looking for anything.” Rather, he strives to be “consciously unconscious.” In this heightened state of sensitivity, he sees and responds to things that are so small, so ephemeral, as to be virtually invisible.
For years, Agematsu worked in the art world—as an art handler at John Weber Gallery, as the super for the Judd Foundation building, as an assistant to various artists. In those jobs he was inside the art world but invisible as an artist. Invisibility was imposed upon him and, paradoxically, it also became the basis of his work. Agematsu’s walks constitute a singularly solitary activity, one that goes largely unseen. Walking in the midst of a crowded environment is a fast way to become invisible. Becoming invisible functions as a prerequisite for receptivity to objects that, in their diminished state, also verge on becoming invisible. The action of walking and the objects he selects compliment one another.
In the aforementioned interview with Phong Bui, Agematsu clarifies, “When I see the object I don’t have to think anything.” That’s because, as he puts it, the materials he collects target him first. They speak to him, and when he realizes that, he takes the object and documents the place and time of the encounter. Each object, then, is an index or marker of the artist’s rarified receptivity and momentary achievement of being fully present. Each walk, each object that calls out to him, renews the possibility of expanded consciousness. However we might process that information, indisputably, what we’re given is a picture of freedom.