PRINT September 2021


Yuji Agematsu, zip: 02.15.20, mixed media in cigarette-pack cellophane wrapper,  2 1⁄2 × 2 1⁄8 × 1".

THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY MONK, poet, and sculptor Enku spent his life traveling across Japan, carving statues of Buddhist deities at each place he stayed. Largely forgoing high-quality timber, he used whatever wood was at hand, including stumps, building scraps, and offcuts from his own carvings. He is said to have made as many as 120,000 of his distinctively raw and rough-hewn statues, about five thousand of which survive; some, known as koppabutsu, or “scrap-wood Buddha,” are tiny, meant to be held in the palm of one’s hand. Enku’s engagement with the world and the substances it offers finds its contemporary counterpart in the practice of Yuji Agematsu.

Agematsu’s zip: 01.01.2020 . . . 12.31.2020, recently shown at Vienna’s Secession in a show organized by curator Jeanette Pacher, is a suite of the artist’s now widely known sculptures made from urban debris. For several decades, Agematsu has been taking daily walks in New York, collecting refuse he finds on the streets (crumpled papers, broken glass, pigeon feathers, etc.), and arranging these discoveries into minute assemblages that he fixes with resin and inserts within the cellophane wrapper of a cigarette pack, one sculpture for each day. He then places a month’s worth of assemblages inside wall-mounted acrylic glass shelves, arranging the entries like days in a calendar. At Secession, there were twelve such shelves, representing the totality of the year 2020.

 Spread from Yuji Agematsu’s notebook, November 26, 2020.

Enku merged his aesthetic impulses with missionary work, aiming to provide Japan’s remote communities with objects of worship. Thus he established an artistic persona emulated by subsequent generations, most notably the eighteenth-century sculptor Mokujiki. Indeed, wandering—as a mode of existence—is an important component of the Japanese aesthetic sensibility, and not unique to Enku. It is a thread that is especially prominent in poetry. From the twelfth-century compositions of Saigyō to the modernist free verse of Santōka Taneda, one repeatedly encounters the figure of a poet traveling through the country, observing and recording mundane details both natural and human and transforming this information into succinct and concentrated poems. Consider these lines by the eighteenth-century poet and painter Buson Yosa: “Pufferfish soup / served in a roadside inn / that lighted a dazzling lamp.” In line with this tradition, zip: 01.01.2020 . . . 12.31.2020 contains a freestanding vitrine with notebooks in which the artist recorded the time, weather conditions, and casual observations from his walks, as well as hand-drawn maps. A typical entry reads: “Lightly clouded sky. Cold wind is blowing. The day started with palpable sense of winter’s arrival. Dead dry leaves that turned yellow ocher are rattling.”

Beyond the intricacy and poetry of Agematsu’s sculptures, one is struck by how decidedly of the city they are.

At the same time, the intricacy and exactitude of Agematsu’s pieces echo a second Japanese sculptural tradition, one diametrically opposed to Enku’s: netsuke. Netsuke are tiny figurines originally used to secure the small cases that once hung from the sashes of kimonos. Made from precious materials, these objects afforded an artist the opportunity to explore an infinite variety of designs within a highly confined format, much as Agematsu’s standardized cellophane wrappers bring consistency to his heterogeneous constructions. Unlike the statues by Enku, which were intended for rural peasants, the exquisitely carved netsuke were a decidedly urban form, popular among wealthy city dwellers and developed concurrently with the rapid urbanization of Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This metropolitan association links this historical practice with the modernity inherent to Agematsu’s output.

From left: Enku, Yakushi (Bhaishajaguru, The Buddha of Healing), 17th century, wood, 17 × 6 1⁄2 × 3 3⁄4". Dog with shell netsuke, Japan, Edo period, 18th century, ivory, 1 5⁄8 × 1 5⁄8 × 1 5⁄8". Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Beyond the intricacy and poetry of Agematsu’s sculptures, one is struck by how decidedly of the city they are. Using the lowliest and most abject materials New York has to offer, he weaves a kaleidoscopic portrait of the city. It is a Benjaminian corpus comparable, both in scale and in attitude, to the Paris of Eugène Atget, who photographed street corners, shopwindows, and (appropriately) ragpickers. Agematsu’s found detritus is damaged, cheap, and garishly colored: broken toys, candy wrappers, and other flotsam and jetsam of consumer capitalism. Visually, his displays echo those of Claes Oldenburg (albeit extremely compressed), especially works such as Mouse Museum, 1965–77, and Ray Gun Wing, 1969–77, wherein Oldenburg meticulously displayed his collection of self-made and found objects in museum-style display cases.

View of “Yuji Agematsu: 2020,” 2021, Secession, Vienna. Photo: Sophie Thun.

As these seemingly incongruous and contradictory strands in Agematsu’s oeuvre indicate, he is a great synthesizer. Following the emergence of modernism, the art history of the twentieth century has often been propelled by non-Western artists who fused modernist methods with their own aesthetic traditions. From Natalia Goncharova’s merger of Futurism with Russian folk art and Fahrelnissa Zeid’s combination of geometric abstraction with Islamic decorative art to Yukio Nakagawa’s surrealist ikebana, those hailing from outside the so-called center have continually questioned and expanded the aesthetic and cultural limits of artmaking. This is the lineage to which we must turn in order to adequately understand Agematsu’s practice. He throws Benjaminian flânerie, Minimalist-Conceptualist seriality, and mangled Pop art into the same mix with a decidedly Japanese sculptural and poetic tradition, concocting an inimitable body of work of singular acuity and intensity.

Yuki Higashino is an artist based in Vienna.