The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue


On View
Real Fine Arts
March 31 – April 29, 2012
New York

Manhattan is as much a city borough as it is a vast administrative machine; its centrality is perhaps the reason why it’s always secreted such unique languages along the edges of its daily operations. Counterpart to this machine, and secretary to the anomalous forms it emits, Yuji Agematsu has, in the improvisational archivist’s lifestyle he’s invented for himself, been combing Manhattan’s streets for curios of trash—the disjecta membra of consumer culture—for 29 years. Agematsu’s show at Real Fine Arts comprises a selection of archival boxes in which he files his findings: the tiniest scrap of a cigarette end, contorted soot-gray napkins, a petrified lump of excrement on which a plastic emerald and pink ribbon got stuck. All is presented as found: no collage. Assemblies of these items are grouped according to the span of time during which the pieces were discovered. There is only one element of composition: within a specific time-grouping, Agematsu has allowed himself the aesthetic agency of placing things adjacent to one another according to similarities in, for example, color or shape. Otherwise, his practice is dedicated to a curatorial attention to the world as found: an attitude somewhat contrary to art.

Yuji Agematsu. L-R: "7/11-9/11," 2011, paper, plastic, wood paneling, tar, shrink wrap, metal, thread, tape, 74 x 43 x 3"; tissue paper, brown paper bag, hair, 7 x 5 x 2"; paper, plastic, tar, tape, hot glue, electronics, foam, cardboard, 41 x 34 x 2". "5/11 - 12/11," 2011, mixed media, 22 x 97 x 52". Courtesy Real Fine Arts.

The arrangements become a kind of writing with an alphabet of junk, an enigmatic cipher which means—beautifully—nothing at all, or which has as its message only the materialized passage of time. It is a diaristic map of Agematsu’s wanderings; his eschewing of art in favor of life as lived recalls the mindset of the S.I. some 60 years ago.  Taken together, the boxes represent an extensive memory bank, in which the inconsequential drifts and remnants of the city’s exchanges are stored as material history.
Agematsu’s gathered grotesques strangely resemble rows of hieroglyphic allegory. This will perhaps appear less strange considered in light of the relationship between collector and allegorist Walter Benjamin outlined in “The Collector”: “The allegorist is…the polar opposite of the collector. He dislodges things from their context…The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together…Nevertheless…in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector.” This duality has been activated by the display of Agematsu’s collection as art; a hidden language embedded within his archive suggests itself—a language of the dead, vanquished trash of society. The gatherings also bear semblance to the sub-language Henri Michaux elaborated in his mescaline drawings, where insect-like forms strung in gestural series violently shudder on the threshold of code. Agematsu accesses a similarly primal margin of language by processing through collection the rejected monstrosities that gather along the city’s gutters and curbs. These are fragments culled from an urban lymphatic system, which, Bataille observed, encompasses both the wasteful and creative/erotic glands, suggesting that both are of one economy.

Agematsu’s cumulative strolling is a flânerie not of “garbage,” but of the novel phraseology of value developed when cycles of consumption and waste are doubled over themselves. To pick up off the ground a discarded scrap of trash, and then restore it according to a consistent cataloguing system, is to discover through a trifold process of use, disuse, and restoration a new scale of value. This value is not “produced”: it’s restorative—resurrected from the underworld of consumerist death that is the fate of all products. 

Agematsu painted the gallery walls bronze, lending his treasures an aura of glamour, and inverting the commodity fetish with a trash fetish. Real Fine Arts is the perfect place for such a reversal. Its very location, under the B.Q.E. and approximately 15 minutes from the subway, is at a decided remove from the commercial arteries of the art world. The determination to do business in such a location not only creates a radical space for the social, but also extends the channels of the market to its own perimeters, where money as a sign can be subverted, recast, and tampered with.

A footnote to the show comes in the form of twin signatures on the plastic slipcover for the press release. Both seem to belong to the curator Jay Sanders, a fan of Agematsu’s work. In fact, an unnamed artist forged both signatures. This falsified detail at once imprints and removes the trace of a curatorial hand. Here is a curious mirroring to the exhibition: none of Agematsu’s objects were ever original until they were ruined.  A consumer product’s unreality is similar to a forgery’s inauthenticity. The two stages of valuation through which the show’s objects have passed—as products expended, and then rehashed into objects given value through collection—create a circuit parallel to the twinned forgery. Perhaps a forgery repeated is a kind of self-commemoration: endorsing the forgery with yet another forgery. In which case, by way of doubling, the signatures resemble these curios, which have died and been reborn with an enigmatic, sourceless value.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues