Yuji Agematsu with Phong Bui
I first learned of Yuji Agematsu’s work through a thoughtful review of his exhibit at Real Fine Arts by the poet, Roger Van Voorhees in the Rail’s May 2012 issue. Throughout the years, I’ve seen Yuji in passing at many social events at the Judd Foundation where he works as the building supervisor. I must confess that in my myopia I failed to realize that he was the same artist that I had read about until Katherine Chan, the director of Miguel Abreu Gallery, gently alerted me of that fact upon my visit to the gallery to see his exhibit Self-Portrait. It was one of the rare exhibits that immediately reminded me of the resilient nature of art and of the artist who has taken a quiet and slow path toward maturity. How taken I was with the possibility of art to be realized through unconventional methods and materials which are in accord with particular conditions of living. Without hesitation, on the occasion of two shows in which his works were featured, Self-Portrait at Miguel Abreu (March 3 – April 2, 2017) and Speak, Lokal at Kunsthalle Zurich (March 4 – May 7, 2017), I paid a visit to his Dumbo studio to talk about his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): I only know two things about the Kanagawa Prefecture, where you are from. One is the great Hokusai woodcut, the Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The other is the famous copper mining business man, Sumitomo Masatomo, who started out as a Buddhist monk, but later sold books and medicine in Kyoto in the early 17th century. My first two questions are what was your upbringing like? And what was it like growing up there?
Yuji Agematsu: I was born in Kanagawa-ken [Kanagawa Prefecture], Miura-shi [Miura City] in 1956. Miura-shi is a really small city—half land and half sea, surrounded by beautiful nature, water, and mountains. From the age of around four or five, I’d go insect hunting in the forest very early in the morning for most of the year. In the summertime I hung around the beach and collected stones, shells, and weird seaweed, among other things. Insect hunting was in fact really popular when I was a kid. Children would make spaces for them. Butterflies, antlions, ladybirds, dragonflies, we would collect everything.
Rail: So you were a natural born collector! [Laughter.]
Agematsu: Yeah, I like collecting almost everything. Next to my hometown, in Yokosuka, is a huge American naval base so a lot of pop culture came in from the U.S.: disco, all kinds of rock music, jazz, blues, posters, t-shirts, books, and a lot of hippie culture. I absorbed everything when I was little from nature and the industrial aspects of Kanagawa-ken to pop culture and music from the U.S.
Rail: So it’d be fair to say that you were already a product of both cultures?
Agematsu: I suppose so.
Rail: What did your parents do?
Agematsu: My father had his own fishing supplies and equipment store. My mother stayed at home and looked after my younger brother and me.
Rail: I know your first love was music, but I didn’t know that you studied with Tokio Hasegawa, the percussionist from the Taj Mahal Travelers whose album Live Stockholm (July 1971) I used to listen to while I was in college.
Agematsu: They were out there, even in the large underground music scene in Yokosuka.
Rail: When and where did you study with Hasegawa?
Agematsu: After I graduated high school I moved to Tokyo to go to Musashi University, a totally boring college. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in those days. Then I started to hang around a few music scenes in Tokyo. Eventually I got to meet Tokio Hasegawa. In those days, the mid-to-late ’70s, the Taj Mahal Travelers were doing these one-time performances, as they were an occasional group. I think it was after the Vision Festival around 1971 that Tokio Hasegawa created a commune in the Nagano-Tohka-machi mountains. I think his intention was to create his own space. He didn’t really get into hippie or commune culture, but he did move away from where he was born in Tokyo into the mountains, and created his own music based on Indian and Afghani music. He created his own style. A friend of mine introduced us. I asked him if I could stay in his house, as I was having problems living in Tokyo. It was noisy and it made me tired. I wanted to be alone, and I wanted to get out of the city area. To my surprise, he invited me to his place, a very old house deep in the mountains. I joined him in all of his activities, including walking around these dark forests on really dark nights. I learned how to develop my own instincts, or heightened perception, like an animal. We also worked on his tiny rice field so I learned a little bit about agriculture too. He also taught me how to collect wild potatoes, lotus roots, weeds—not marijuana. We didn’t smoke marijuana. Just a natural high.
Rail: What! I just don’t believe it! For how long did you live off the land in isolation?
Agematsu: Oh, coming and going, for about a year.
Rail: So while you were cultivating the land and learning how to survive from it, did you manage to study music with him?
Agematsu: Yes, but it wasn’t a traditional way to learn music, since all the members of the band really hated practice, except Takehisa Kosugi, who had graduated from a prestigious music program at Tokyo University and knew lots about music. He could certainly read music, but most of them couldn’t. They didn’t have to. Every time they were together they would just improvise, play something, make noise. I totally grew up in a no notation, no definition kind of environment.
Rail: What instrument did you play?
Agematsu: A very simple Indian tabla drum. There were no rules. It was very simple, mostly because they didn’t believe in any professionalism I guess. It was more like happenings and Fluxus. Still this was around 1974 or ’75, I felt like I needed more time to seek myself out and to travel around, so I left Hasegawa’s house and the mountains, and hitchhiked around my country for a while only to return to the mountains again before departing from Hasegawa again, and returning once more. I stopped for a while in Kyoto. I would come back all of a sudden and apologize for suddenly disappearing. [Laughter.] I stayed in Kyoto and my mother and father didn’t understand what I was doing, so they cut off the money. I had quit school and they were worried about me. They didn’t understand what I was doing. I had to go to Kyoto to stay with a friend who had a tiny apartment while I looked for a job. One day I saw an ad in the newspaper for a variety of jobs at a horse stable. I came for the job interview and the man said, “Why don’t you be a horse trainer? We have dormitories where you can stay and the money is good, really good.” That was it. I spent a whole year practicing with the horse. It was a hard job, but I saved a lot of money. After one year, I quit.
Rail: Were you good at it?
Agematsu: Yes, partly because I’m small. I didn’t like horse racing though, mostly because I really disliked the whole Japanese racehorse association culture which was and probably still is very right-wing, very macho.
Rail: Like Trump and his golfing at—
Agematsu: —His private club. Exactly. But it was a good job because I saved a lot of money, so I could do other things. I moved back to Kyoto and found a cheap apartment. Then I made a lot of friends. In those days a lot of interesting people lived together in the Shimogamo district in Kyoto. There were people who were involved with the Black Panthers, peace movements, and other radical causes. They were on the ultra left. Anyway, I stayed in Kyoto for a year and a half before going to Friends World College.
Rail: Which was an experimental school.
Agematsu: Like Black Mountain College. There were a lot of branches all over the world at one point, including London, Guatemala, Israel, Kenya, and in New York, Huntington, Long Island. It was a free education system. The application form was very simple. All you had to do was write down what you wanted to do and then find a field advisor. I was interested in music at the time, especially the percussionist Milford Graves.
I only knew him from his records, and then through one of his musicians, Toshi Tsuchitori, who wrote about Milford Graves for a Japanese music magazine and introduced me to what Milford was doing in Jamaica, Queens. That’s when I decided to go ask Milford Graves to be my field advisor. I wrote to him and said I was from the Friends World College and wanted to study with him and be part of his community. I started with Yara. Yara means nimble, quick, fast. It’s based on a Yoruba language. As you know, Milford mixed African, American, jazz, and Nigerian Yoruba music and instruments like the talking drum, and so on. He created his own movement. Yara looks like Brazilian capoeira, dance and fighting. Just like a mashup combining music and dance, you know? I learned a lot.
Rail: So you came to the U.S. to study with Milford Graves in Jamaica, Queens?
Agematsu: I came to this country in 1980 first to study at the Friends World College in Huntington, before studying with Milford Graves a year later.
Rail: Again, it sounds like you were studying other things rather than just music.
Agematsu: That’s true. It was about a way of life. They were very serious about their own community and how to protect themselves from the other. When I was there, we didn’t eat meat. We weren’t too influenced or controlled by consumer culture. At one point, he told me “Yuji, you came from another country. Compared to us, you have a totally different structure to your body. You can’t imitate what we’re doing. You have to find your own thing based on your body. Your history is totally different. You have to find it in yourself.” So I realized that I had to seek out my own thing.
Rail: Were you very upset?
Agematsu: Yeah, but he was saying the right thing. It was about 1985 that I came to my senses and realized it was very important to carve out my own path.
Rail: Did you begin to walk the streets of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn to collect discarded objects and so on as soon as you graduated in 1985?
Agematsu: Yes, I explored everywhere as though I was starting from scratch.
Rail: Did you feel that those objects you collected resonated in the same way that they did when you were a kid walking around the forest collecting insects, or on the beach gathering seashells, seaweed, and so on?
Agematsu: Yes, my own original interests came back to me. I’d walk around and collect these objects, but this time I was finding myself. Each time I found an object on the street and picked it up to take a look at it, I was finding myself—where I belonged.
Rail: The great Roman poet Lucretius once thought that the image was a thing itself and the material of the thing manifested itself on the surface. This observation is interesting because when objects are mass-produced, their ultimate purpose is to capture your attention. Their so-called “surface tension” or “tight skins” are easily identified with characteristics that specify how they should be consumed, like their logos, colors, and the shapes and sizes of their packaging and so on. Be they packages of cigarettes, beer cans, bottles of Aspirin, candy bars, or whatever. Each is rarely mistaken for another product. But once they are used, consumed, thrown away, they become subject to all kinds of physical abuse, like being stepped upon, covered with dirt, exposed to weather conditions, oxidative processes, decay, erosion. They lose their initial physiognomy. Their “tight skin” appearances therefore become impossible to identify. My question is, how do you know what to select and what not to?
Agematsu: That point is always on my mind, how to identify objects. I see each object as a notation in terms of music. Each has its own sound and rhythm.
Rail: So you use your eyes like a dog uses its nose?
Agematsu: I’d say yes, but it’s relaxed, not anxious. Each object has a face, or a signal which resonates with me. It’s similar to what interested me in music. I think it sometimes comes in the form of a color, a shape, or a gesture that I may associate with things in nature such as a flower, a cloud, or an animal.
Rail: Do you mean like how the Surrealists referenced Leonardo da Vinci, who had said if you look long enough at the stain on the marble on the ceiling, battle scenes of men on galloping horses, soldiers fighting on the ground and so on would emerge in front of your eyes?
Agematsu: Yes! Exactly!
Rail: How quickly do you identify an object according to its image before picking it up for your collection?
Agematsu: Very quickly. It jumps into my eye and then I pick it up immediately. As you pointed out, there’s a connection between what I have been doing from 1985 until now, and what I did as a kid. I really feel as though I have been doing this since I was born. I think everybody starts with the same kind of touching and picking up of objects. It’s just a normal human behavior.
Rail: But it became art from 1985 onwards—I mean both the act of walking and the act of collecting.
Agematsu: That’s when I was first exposed to art. Before that I didn’t pay attention to any art or art object. I only knew of Duchamp’s readymade ideas. In my musical community, people were always thinking about Duchamp.
Rail: Were you aware of what was being shown in different galleries in SoHo?
Agematsu: Yes, and I got my first job was as a preparator and art installer at John Weber Gallery when it was on the top floor of 142 Greene Street. I used to be a house painter, so working at the gallery was almost the same job, with one difference: you got to meet artists and other people in the art world. Gradually, I learned a lot through the gallery. But at the same time, I still was part of Milford Graves’s community, which belonged to the street. It was totally different from the white-cube activities. So there were very big gaps.
Rail: So you were torn.
Agematsu: Yes, I respected Milford Graves’s activities, but I needed a job to pay the rent. I’ve always been a very practical person. Then after one year I became a super of the whole 142 Greene Street building.
Rail: Which was owned by Lucio Pozzi.
Agematsu: Yes, it was Lucio who hired me.
Rail: Didn’t you think it was a big responsibility? John Weber was on the top floor, Sperone Westwater was on the second, and Leo Castelli was on the ground floor.
Agematsu: Yes, it was. Eventually Richard Serra’s piece fell through the floor and the building closed after a while. And then I became Allan McCollum’s assistant.
Rail: A great artist and a nice man. What came next?
Agematsu: I started to work for Sol LeWitt, on his screenprinting and wall drawings. I joined the LeWitt crew for a while and then, when Leo Castelli closed his gallery—
Rail: Pace took over his space.
Agematsu: Then I moved to the Pace Gallery as their new preparator. Looking back now, I realize that I’ve met so many artists who were showing at the different galleries I had worked for, but I was right in front of 142 Greene Street when I met Peter Ballantine. He said, “Hey Yuji, we need a handyman.” So I joined the 101 Spring Street building, and began working for them. That was around 1996, when I joined the Judd estate. Flavin was still living down there with his wife. It was at that same time that I also met Shigeko Kubota right in front of the door, because she was right there. [Laughter.] Shigeko was a very special person. She brought manju, a Japanese rice cake, and said, “Hey you, eat this. What’s your name?” “Yuji.” “Shigeko.” The next day: “Hey you, I need your help.” I started working for Nam June [Paik] and Shigeko, partly because Nam June had just had a stroke and couldn’t move. They needed a housekeeper, cleaner, and handyman, and I started working for them and Judd at the same time.
Rail: Seven days a week! A handyman with high demands!
Agematsu: It was very interesting, because Judd and Nam June are totally different kinds of artists! [Laughter.]
Rail: I can only imagine. Would it be fair to say you like being in a community of one form or another? And you taught yourself how to become a beloved handyman?
Agematsu: Yes. I like to offer my services to the artist community. The whole neighborhood used to be an artist community, especially Mercer Street. A couple of artists still live there, Jackie Winsor, Mary Beth [Edelson]. I didn’t go to art school at all, I didn’t study art. But I was in close touch with amazing artists—Nam June, Shigeko, Judd—and with big galleries like John Weber and Pace. I learned a lot about how to take care of artwork. I just painted a new wall at the Judd Foundation today.
Rail: Where you’re still working, and where we see each other quite often. Forgive me for not realizing that you were an artist.
Agematsu: No worries! Sometimes I forget that I’m an artist myself.
Rail: Let’s go back to your work. You’ve worked for so many artists as a handyman, a type of work that requires tremendous attention and physical labor—I know since I did it myself for fourteen years. I mean, I had to drink a huge cup of coffee as soon as I got home so I could work on my own work until the morning. How did you manage to do your work, especially as your job became increasingly demanding?
Agematsu: No matter how long I have to work, I always go on my daily walk afterwards. They’re totally separate activities. I’m proud of freelance work, of making a living in exchange for my handywork. While I’m working for someone, I’m able to forget about art, forget about what I’m doing. After work, I start to walk for myself, as myself. It’s an everyday freedom that I feel I’ve earned. Yet freedom needs some kind of discipline. Discipline means work. Discipline is totally different from practice. Discipline is against freedom in a sense. When I get out the door and leave my daytime work, I don’t have to think of anything. I can just be free to inhabit my artist identity and begin my walk, and collect my artwork. I became an artist to be like a machine.
Rail: When did you begin to record your walks in notebooks?
Agematsu: That started in 1992.
Rail: What was the impulse behind this particular undertaking?
Agematsu: The notebooks came from my desire to take measurements of the entire Manhattan area. I wanted to catalogue and record my steps, my distance. How many steps do I need for one block? I wanted to make my own map in the manner of Duchamp. One foot is one foot, but who decided that? Someone created a foot as a system of measurement. But I’m a short, small person. Maybe my measurement is totally different from ordinary scale. I became interested in my own body as a tool to measure space and things surrounding me, particularly during my walk. This leads to a heightened awareness of my own sense of scale. Take the Broadway project, as an example. I try to take a measurement with a pedometer. Broadway starts from Bowling Green, the end of Manhattan. There are very interesting cuts in the road. I recorded everything. On November 7, 1999, at exactly 9:00 a.m., I was curious about how long I would take to walk through Broadway. At each street corner, I took a look at the pedometer and time, and wrote down everything—from 9th Avenue and 220th Street to Bowling Green. Starting from 9:00 a.m. exactly, at each corner I recorded the step number and how much time I spent at each avenue or street block. A total of 26,839 steps by the end of the day at 7:49 p.m.
Rail: Scale is a psychological condition.
Agematsu: And each person has to find his or her own sense of scale.
Rail: And to pay attention to when it can be applied even in the practical sense. For example, from 1939 when the war broke out until it ended in 1945, Giacometti began to make human figures based from memory, not observation, from his temporary residence and studio in a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. When he finally returned after the war and resumed his life in Paris, he brought all of those figures in several matchboxes. They were tiny. I assume you have an approximate idea of how large an object you collect is in relation to your archives or storage space?
Agematsu: Scale is totally different from size. Scale is psychological, as you said, but it is also more conceptual. Although I collect tiny objects, they’re actual scale. If I found big objects and compared them to small ones, they’d all still be the same actual scale. Sometimes people say that I collect small objects. But they’re actual scale, you know? I think there’s plenty of room for large works to be explored, but in my case, I’m interested in exploring objects that are easily portable and can be put away in a manageable storage space. So yes, there’s a practical issue but it doesn’t interfere with the process or my selection.
Rail: You mentioned during your daily walk that the objects tend to jump at you—the object comes to you, rather than you to it. You also said you rely on serialization or the use of repetition, and yet you never repeat yourself, which is proven to be true. Take the objects in your show as an example, especially in the series zip; 01.01.16 … 12.31.16 (2016), which is made of a variety of minute things, such as hair, strings, crumpled paper, even dead insects, among other tiny debris, carefully placed in 366 cellophane wrappers from cigarette packs, all installed on twelve shelves. Each wrapper is its own universe, which is neither a landscape, cityscape, nor an imaginary or inscape. Each perhaps refers to those descriptions depending on its unpredictable association. And yet none of them are repeated.
Agematsu: I think with seriality, things can be similar but never identical.
Rail: That was exactly what Allan [McCollum] and I were talking about in our last conversation [in the April 2017 issue]. No two people are exactly alike. We understand that, but we often take it for granted. In Allan’s case, his conceptual thinking happens before the object is made. He has to figure out how to construct the objects in specific configurations while implementing slight differences between them. He has to think that through before they get cast in large numbers. In your case, the objects are already made long before they are essentially modified by nature. You just give each the form to become alive. Each has its own quality of a readymade so to speak.
Agematsu: Allan’s work is about the consumerist object. My objects are accidental objects, already consumed. When I saw his show, I thought it was so great. In my cigarette cellophane pieces, each piece is so singular, and the content is similar. Singularity attracts me. Each is made daily. And everyday has its own differences. Each day is different from the last. And so is each work.
Rail: What is your relationship with collage and assemblage that mingles the avant-garde with the occult, and the vernacular with the cosmological? I’m asking partly in regards to the issue of rhythm in relation to thought.
Agematsu: I just think each work requires a specific very intense moment, like a powerful threshold that focuses on this specific segment of time before moving to the next. It’s related to our existence even at the unconscious level for some people. When I see the object I don’t have to think anything. I forget past tense and find out where I belong now. I sense the sky above me and the noise in the city. Otherwise, repetition makes an autonomous zone. Each time it’s temporary. Hakim Bey articulates that idea very well.
Rail: Yes, it’s in his 1991 book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone [published by Autonomedia], which describes the potential of activating a temporary space where you can fulfill an action and then you go to the next before it closes up by formal structure. And you deploy this tactic in response to different spaces accordingly without repeating yourself.
Agematsu: I think repetition has a strong power, as long as you don’t take it for granted. It’s about how to repeat without the formulaic use of repetition.
Rail: In fact, Yuji, when you take a walk after work, or even during a full day on the weekend, how conscious are you? How predetermined are you to walk a street you’ve not walked before, or to walk a particular street again? In other words, do you walk specifically or randomly?
Agematsu: Randomly and with purpose. But I don’t think of anything for the purpose. There’s a great emptiness. During work time, I have to do something to make money. I have to be in a certain kind of space, to sell my body and knowledge for exchange. After that, I get into a totally different mindset from those ordinary activities. There’s no purpose. I’m not looking for anything, but when I see something, I realize where I am at that moment. So it works in the totally opposite way. During work, I have to look for something, notice what’s next, because it’s business. In the other stage, I don’t have to pick up anything. The object itself stimulates me. The subject relationship is reversed. I’d say that one is consciously unconscious, and the other is unconsciously conscious.
Rail: Can you share with us why this particular show is called Self-Portrait?
Agematsu: I think of the objects in the show as personifications. I was also thinking of the relationships between subjects and objects, as well as the idea of the gallery as a white cube space. So I thought about how to lead the viewer to the objects by using the rhetoric of framing, or other connotations of representing them in various ways.
Rail: One last thing: if you appreciate Hakim Bey, a.k.a. Peter Lamborn Wilson, if you like vanguard cinema and experimental music, you must be somewhat interested in the subjects of alchemy, mysticism, or the occult, which I mentioned earlier.
Agematsu: Living in the big city, especially these days, we have to figure out how to live. Actuality is very strong. You have to make money. The economic system is much stronger than ghosts or mythology, you know? The whole economic system is a monster, a modern ghost. I always admire mystical things, subconsciously. I admire Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and Harry Smith, but they’ve done what they set out to do. Right now, I have to think about how to pay rent, how to get materials. This is the most mysterious thing! That’s why I try to find mysterious things and deal with them. I believe in alchemy. I think it’s very important, but so are questions like how to survive. That’s much stronger than anything else. It’s a big question. I didn’t have a show for a long time, and I’m just getting into the activity. I was so happy because I didn’t have to worry about rent money. New York City used to be much easier to survive in than now. I think it’s a larger ecosystem. The art world is just a part of it. The artists make the works, the galleries sell it. Both have to pay rent. The mental discipline to keep up all of these activities is an alchemical process. This is the most mysterious thing.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.