Yuji Agematsu is primarily known for doing one thing, and for having done that one thing for a very long time. That particular activity is walking the streets of New York, his adopted city. (Born in 1956 in Kanagawa, Japan, Agematsu moved to New York in 1980.) Of course, so do lots of people. But, while the city’s other walkers might pick up a trinket or two off the street, not many do so with Agematsu’s obsessive, magpie-like eye for detritus: during each walk, taken daily since 1997, Agematsu collects bric-a-brac off the ground and places it into a box of cellophane, the kind usually used to wrap packs of cigarettes.
Presented as a single, multi-part sculpture, a year’s worth of these miniature vitrines made up 01-01-2014 ~ 12-31-2014 (2014), at Real Fine Arts this summer. The show was Agematsu’s second with the Brooklyn gallery, following a solo show last year at Portland’s Yale Union and a recent Whitney-commissioned performance centred on the artist’s walks around the museum’s new building and neighbourhood. 01-01-2014 ~ 12-31-2014 saw the 365 cellophane wrappers arranged calendar-style on freestanding shelving units. Each unit contains a month’s worth of material, each shelf a week. At first, I was tempted to look for obvious markers of time’s passing or possible concessions to seasonal change, like winter road salt or summer sand. Yet the packed wrappers don’t reflect the weather getting warmer (though a stretch from March to April is remarkably verdant and moss-filled, perhaps nodding to spring’s arrival), instead yielding, microscope-like, Agematsu’s clarity of focus with regards to the city’s debris, as well as his esoteric sculptural sensibilities. The artist likes to accrete accreting materials, inclining towards the sticky – gum, hair, sugar – and whatever they’ve dragged along. Sometimes, the packs are arranged like terrariums, a cigarette butt or the head of a bright-green spoon jutting out from a topsoil of compacted trash. At other times, they have an ethereal, feathery quality, the cellophane’s walls holding loops of hair or a dust bunny in place, arcing towards the wrapper’s open top. Occasionally, Agematsu throws in a surprising outlier that breaks any sense of a strict taxonomy: an oyster-like wad of blue gum encasing a faux-pearl of enamelled stone here, half a desiccated lemon there. There’s a one-time-only replacement in mid-April of the cellophane with an actual cigarette box.
As a whole, 01-01-2014 ~ 12-31-2014 felt both loose and unified, demonstrating how Agematsu has fashioned a singular aesthetic via constraint, repetition and the occasional experiment over a dramatically prolonged period of time; all of which means, essentially, that he has a keen sense of rhythm. (Interestingly, besides his daily habits, the other prominent detail about Agematsu is that he studied with jazz percussion legend Milford Graves.) That rhythm and repetition in this sense can elevate the quotidian is a somewhat commonplace notion, if not a tired one, especially in light of the recent Guggenheim retrospective of his fellow reclusive time-obsessive, the late On Kawara. For those who find Kawara metronomic in his portentous mundanity (or enjoy his work the way you’d enjoy a slick, minimalist clock), Agematsu provides more improvisation while still alluding to the same existential questions raised by Kawara’s compulsive rituals. Moreover, his choice of materials evinces a sense of humour about those questions. Searching for meaning, or lack thereof, in life can involve solemnly terse statements; an equally meditative and somewhat less navel-gazing pursuit might be attending and giving order to the world’s cast-off crumbs, even if that means scraping gum from the sidewalk and grasping at other people’s loose hairs.