For the past 25 years, Japan-born, Brooklyn-based Yuji Agematsu (b. 1956) has maintained an archive of urban detritus — cast-off bits of chewed gum, tattered and illegible printed matter, shrimp shells, lint, etc. — gathered on daily forages through city streets. Recently, he has been presenting selections of these findings in exhibitions (Real Fine Arts, Brooklyn, 2012; White Columns Annual, New York, 2013; a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, through Jan. 4, 2015). Agematsu’s show at Yale Union was the largest overview of his amassment to date.
The material bits that Agematsu collects are minute, unassuming and gutter-made. Decay is key, and this show emphasized the staggering variety of its effects. In some cases, it had rendered clumps of paper or cotton swabs remarkably singular. In others, it had melded these elements together, forming dystopic little chimeras: hair folded into lollipops, insects into moss. In every case, Agematsu’s keen sensitivity to his materials’ vibrancy was palpable.
The items were presented on a cluster of tabletops, raised anywhere from 6 inches off the ground to eye level. This memorable staging emphasized the materials’ provisionality and tacitly evoked Agematsu’s studio, where dunes of bankers boxes contain and display the archive. Thematically, it echoed cityscapes and their chasms. It also eschewed the wall-mounting of previous exhibitions, which had an all too precious effect on his humble forms. Here, even seemingly two-dimensional arrangements of muffin wrappers claimed sculptural weight and depth.
The tables also distinguished between subsets of Agematsu’s archive. On one long, low surface lay a thick strip of weather-worn concert posters, ripped from a telephone pole down the street. The posters’ colorful striations, an archaeological trace of past events, yellowed and crumbled as the show progressed. Assembled nearby at waist-height was a colony of torqued cigarette butts, correlating city pollution and body pollution with, for Agematsu, unusual directness. Translucent clumps of dust, whose webs and tendrils were kept aloft by careful armatures of pins, appeared throughout.
But the heart of the exhibition was the four high tables anchoring the room’s corners. They displayed the most systematic, diaristic and poetic facet of the artist's activity: every day since 1997, Agematsu has filled a cellophane sleeve (specifically, a hard-pack cigarette wrapper) with a clump of matter. These tables presented the first four months of 2014: 120 sleeves for 120 days, one table per month. The calendrical framework highlighted the dedicated daily practice through which Agematsu’s controlled chaos takes shape. This sense of the collector’s devotion was as crucial to the show’s vertiginous effect as his forms’ molecular dynamism.
Agematsu’s findings, and his modest interventions upon them, undercut the cult of authorship. He gathers things that have been warped by time, and which time continues to warp, whether in storage or exhibition. He embraces the mutability of matter, and finds vitality in it.
The artist’s recent art-world attention is well warranted and overdue. On the one hand, there is clearly a honed sensibility at work — one that nonchalantly outpaces the glutted regime of junk-pop aesthetics. On the other, his work taps into myriad issues of ever-increasing urgency in the Anthropocene, having to do with ecology, conservation, permanence and its impossibility. But rather than underline a didactic environmentalist thesis, Agematsu’s collecting marks an enigmatic, melancholic approach to the life and death of our world. It suggests letting things speak for themselves — or prodding things just enough to get them talking.