April 26–June 29, 2014
This muck heaves and palpitates. It has a mayor. It is both physical (gum and bugs) and spiritual (dust and ground down ATM cards), and part of a larger mystery Yuji Agematsu has met with since the 1980s. There is a touch of sublimity to it, as when you notice a contact lens held up by a pillow of soot. There is a rill of doom, as when you start at the burnt butts and revolve downward, the way a buzzard glides and drops in the air, until you light on a carcass and the dirtiest M&M you’ve ever seen. The levity of this doom has no equal.
When Agematsu moved to New York, the city he found was a great filthy gift. To him it was eden, but he doesn’t want it back. Still, he laments the hike on cigarettes, and the loss of a four-story building inhabited by nothing but pigeons and mutts. Otherwise, no vales of Har for him. No rebirth either. Once is enough. He knows cities change faster than the heart. And in some ways, his work is secretary to such change. Routine change—the loss of the penny, for example. Entropy—a succinct definition of which we might find in Humpty Dumpty. And still less measurable change—passing apparitions, I suppose.
“The city is a machine that creates a new city, new buildings, new shit, and each day I walk around observing and collecting it,” Agematsu has said. “There is always something to do, clean up the building, go to the bank, the eye doctor, pay the bills, always some bureaucracy I have to deal with, so while I’m out I make my work.”
In his time, Agematsu has visited and poked around in almost every one of the neighborhoods that make up New York. He has gone to some of these neighborhoods only once or twice, but he has gone to others—or to certain streets in them—over and over again, for reasons that he clearly understands, or for reasons that he dimly understands, or for reasons that he does not understand at all.
When something grips his eye he takes it to the studio to pin it down. White paint scales from the brick walls, bacteria glows, and objects shift and wander in huge piles, like dunes. Agematsu will sometimes wipe mouse droppings from a box with his sleeve, calmly reflecting on how mice have such passion for his little things. “They’ve eaten holes in my worldview” and gnawed the round out of an Ornette Coleman record. One has chewed into a box of funny pages leaving the shape of its body in the news, and another has polished off an exhibition from the 90s. Rot has taken others. Nothing is stable. “What can be done? We must risk mortality and decay.”
Permanence is a palpable aspect of this business of art, if only because it extends a dead artist’s existence beyond the limits one envisioned, or provides a living artist with a future one cannot measure. In other words, it deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending. On the whole, objects are less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlasts its creator. What, then, are we to make of an archive which goes in reverse, or of an exhibition which accelerates its demise? What are we to think of an art work in conflict with self-importance, including the self-importance endemic to art and preservation?
How are we to understand an artist whose work consists almost exclusively of small acts of neglect; someone who almost always makes the same thing and yet never repeats himself, to whom his own work, honed on the tiniest details, becomes pleasantly incomprehensible and has the tendency to dissolve upon seeing it, so that only a few hours after encountering it, one can barely remember the ephemeral matter of which it was made?
How is it, too, so much empathy and interest can be applied to the most insignificant things? “Indeed,” Robert Walser writes about ash, “if one goes into this apparently uninteresting subject in any depth there is quite a lot to be said about it which is not at all uninteresting; if, for example, one blows on ash it displays not the least reluctance to fly off instantly in all directions. Ash is submissiveness, worthlessness, irrelevance itself, and best of all, it is itself pervaded by the belief that it is fit for nothing. Is it possible to be more helpless, more impotent, and more wretched than ash? Not very easily. Could anything be more compliant and more tolerant? Hardly. Ash has no notion of character and is further from any kind of wood than dejection is from exhilaration. Where there is ash there is actually nothing at all. Tread on ash, and you will barely notice that you have stepped on anything.”
One of life’s hardest jobs, it turns out, is to make a quick understanding slow. When we began, I was omniscient, and interested in opinion rather than creation. I had forgotten, I suppose, a terrifying thing I warn others against—measly palliatives. My slogan was, “No amount of assertion will make an ounce of art,” but I forgot it. Too much of a temptation to get in the first critical word, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I like trying out ideas on his work, but I am suspicious of how quickly they come. For every darkened thought on capitalism, comes another in love with the way our lives are grinding the earth to a halt, or still another about the distinctions we make between what is and isn’t animate. Thinking hasn’t been the problem, as it so often is; the problem has been the number of thoughts one can pant after. Waste is of intensest significance. It is emblematic, in some ways, for how we invest a universal subject with pet knowledge and particular anxiety. It means and means and means, and in some hands can mean too much.
Yuji Agematsu was born in 1956 in Kanagawa, Japan. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. He studied with Tokio Hasegawa, a member of the band Taj Mahal Travellers, and the jazz drummer and choreographer Milford Graves.
The exhibition included a performance by Yuji Agematsu at FRIENDLY HOUSE GYM; a talk by Andrew Lampert; a performance by Graham Lambkin; a screening of A Casing Shelved and Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film by Michael Snow at NORTHWEST FILM CENTER; and an installation of Tatsumi Hijikata’s performance tape Hosotan.
Thanks to Richard Birkett, Andrew Lampert, Jay Sanders, Judd Foundation, Real Fine Arts, and Artspeak.Yuji Agematsu and Yale Union will make an exhibition and book with Artspeak in Vancouver in September 2014.