At the age of 25 a young man leaves his native Japan for New York to pursue musical studies with a charismatic avant-garde jazz percussionist. To support himself he finds work as a preparator and art handler at a SoHo gallery. He is so good at his job that after a year the owner of the 6-story building where the gallery is located hires him to be super for the entire building. This job lasts until the day that a 16-ton steel sculpture being installed in the building’s first-floor gallery collapses, injuring two workers (one of whom loses a leg below the knee) and temporarily shuttering the building. After working for a while as an artist’s assistant, he finds another maintenance-related job managing a building that once was the home and studio of a leading Minimalist sculptor and now houses a foundation devoted to the artist’s legacy.
For years he has spent much of his free time walking the streets of New York City—his interest in music has waned—picking up small objects that catch his eye. He carries with him a notebook in which he records the time and place of his finds and a camera, which he uses to photograph the objects in situ, paying particular attention to the shadows and stains surrounding them. During his perambulations he becomes interested in systems of measurement. One day he sets out to walk the entire length of Broadway from 220th Street to Bowling Green. It takes him just under 11 hours (10 hours and 49 minutes to be precise) and, as measured by the pedometer he carries, 26,839 steps.
His greatest passion, however, is for collecting street detritus, an activity not so different from his favorite childhood pastimes in Japan: hunting for insects in the forest; collecting stones, shells and “weird seaweed” from the beach. Around the age of 40 he decides to take a more methodical approach to his scavenging. Each day’s gathering of tiny items will be kept in a cellophane sleeve from a cigarette pack (he smokes a pack a day). Once back at home he uses drops of resin to fix the day’s finds into little assemblages.
None of the resulting sculptures measures more than 4 inches in height. Their formal beauty and material delicacy is achieved with the most unlikely, and often unpalatable stuff: wads of chewing gum of various colors, strands of hair, clumps of dust, hair clips, safety pins, plastic spoons and forks, lengths of wire, water-logged paper, shredded fabric, blobs and chips of unidentifiable matter, tiny balls of tin foil, cigarette butts, half-eaten pieces of candy. Amid such human-generated detritus are stray pieces of natural matter: clumps of moss, leaves (often partially eaten away by insects), damaged feathers, a dried-up lemon slice, dead bugs.
He notices that certain sites are richer with the kind of things he seeks, especially subway stations, gutters and stretches of sidewalk covered by scaffolding. Apparently these are places where passersby are more likely to discard unwanted items. In all his years of scavenging the only people to ever approach him are on-duty NYPD officers, who upon learning that he is an artist invariably leave him alone. What he most values about his artistic activities is the total lack of obligation he feels as he wanders the city. At his day job there are a thousand things to take care of, countless tasks that he must complete if he wants to be paid. In the streets the situation couldn’t be more different: the decision to pick up that candy wrapper or that rubber band is up to him and no one else. Pure autonomy.
Although through his building manager job he encounters many people in the New York artworld, few are aware that he is an artist. It’s only when he turns 60 that he begins to exhibit his work, which he prefers to display en masse. For one of his first shows he presents an entire year’s work: 365 sculptures, each sheltered in its fragile cellophane envelope. Finally, at the age of 62, nearly 40 years after arriving in New York, he is able to quit his day job.