Text on the work of the artist Yuji Agematsu, for his show at Secession, Vienna, March-June 2021, in the book Four Seasons.
Are you also puzzled, Socrates, about cases that might be thought absurd, such as hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects? Are you doubtful whether or not to assert that each of these has a separate eidos distinct from things like those we handle?
Not at all, said Socrates. In those cases, the things are just the things we see; it would surely be too absurd to suppose that they have an eidos. All the same, I have sometimes been troubled by a doubt whether what is true in one case may not be true in all. Then, when I have reached that point, I am driven to retreat, for fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense.
Plato, Parmenides 130c–d
The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
In Katamari Damacy (2003), the strange and beguiling creation of Keita Takahashi, a trained sculptor who defected into videogame design, the player controls a five-centimeter-tall cylinder-headed cartoon prince tasked with rebuilding the heavens after his peremptory and all-powerful father King of All Cosmos carelessly destroyed them in a drunken transport of cosmic beatitude:
Like a little dung beetle, the prince must push around a ball to which items in the game environment adhere, forming a tumbling clump whose unevenness lends the gameplay a peculiar tactility and physicality. As the katamari grows, it becomes capable of ‘rolling up’ larger and larger items: from coins, matchsticks, and batteries to furniture, trees, farm animals, pedestrians and policemen, cars, buildings, and finally whole cities. In the closing scene, the tiny prince, now dwarfed in scale by the katamari, rolls it across the globe, picking up continental landmasses as it goes.
We might imagine placing the contents of Yuji Agematsu’s ‘zips’ at the opposite end of the scale, in a prequel level prior to the initial 5 centimeter diameter domestic-scale katamari capable of gathering thumb tacks, candies, pachinko balls, hairpins, postage stamps, and chestnuts until, upon attaining 10 centimeters, it can roll out into the yard. Perhaps they make up the sticky stuff that forms the original core and lends the katamari its adhesive power? In any case, Agematsu’s daily assemblages of detritus, each exhibited in a cellophane packet, partake in the ‘clump spirit [katamari damashii, 塊魂]’ that imbues Takahashi’s game—a cosmic disposition which places great hope in the obsessional collecting of heterogeneous stuff.
A clump is less than a set, in so far as it is subject not to the selectivity of the concept, but to a principle of universal adhesion (fundamental glomtology) combined with a situatedness and a tempo of accumulation which dictate its singular composition. The clump emerges as a kind of abject eidos, a quintessence via processes of material selection and agglomeration rather than conceptual purgation and generalization—something like the piles of moss, litter, and animal bones that fall through a fissure to cluster on the floor of a cave, invisible except to the most intrepid speleologist capable of fathoming such a ‘bottomless pit’.
While the objects agglomerated in Katamari Damacy are counted by category at the end of each round, those in Agematsu’s zips have tumbled through the pachinko of categories and straight out of the bottom into the streets of New York City, formless anonymous materials, orphans of the Platonic eidos. And yet each presents a moment in the city’s idea of itself, an ulterior distillate, the final product ground out of a multi-scale machine, a snapshot in which the city dreams itself in microcosm.
Most children at some point make the precious discovery of this magical domain invisibilized by the regime of school, home and family, consisting of stuff that obeys none of the rules by which domesticated objects come to know their place. But the child who, inspired by clump spirit, brings home a mossy twig, some stones and a dead beetle in a discarded cigarette carton, reclaiming materials through which they’re able to express that part of themselves for which there is no place at home, will surely be punished. Don’t play in the gutter is an edict disobeyed only by wayward urchins and chronic flanêurs, for whom the street is not a purposeful route from A to B, but an infernal machine entered into with unparalleled pleasure: becoming-anonymous in a transmission channel that traffics bodies and things, pooling, buffeting and sorting them in huge, heaving collective tides of anonymity.
As the great ideologues of this urban Paradise maintain,
within that order, every nature has its bent, according to a different station, nearer or less near to its origin. Therefore, these natures move to different ports across the mighty sea of being, each given the impulse that will bear it on.1
There is no need to ‘demand the impossible’, no need to find a beach beneath the street, because the sidewalk is already a shoreline where jetsam is stranded, ready to be rolled up. Identities are lost and found in this gran mar de l’essere which takes in everything, even the ‘wretched refuse’, chews it up, and spits it out at the place its destiny allots, meaning that everything always ends up in the right spot at the right time, along with its consort.
But at the eleventh hour Agematsu overturns the cruelty of this fatal ordinance whereby everything tempest-tossed by the city gets what it deserves: the bum in the street, the trash in the alley, the banker in the tower, and the artwork in the gallery. Doesn’t Duchamp say that the readymade is an object that has ‘changed direction’? The zips are undoubtedly a kind of second chance saloon, a last-minute change of fortune for the lowest of lowlife.
Unlike the antiseptic Duchamp, however (there was always something too pristine about his lucky finds), Agematsu is not window-shopping for ‘proof of the existence of the outside world’—a world outside of art, which the readymade folded back into art. His gaze is lower, and he remains unperturbed by the ‘inevitable response to shop windows’—having to choose, purchase, and finally pay the ‘penalty’ of ‘cutting the pane and […] feeling regret as possession is consummated’.2 Everything he rolls up and bundles in, all those finds he describes as ‘desirable debris’, have already been consumed and consummated. Every element has been bought and sold, has been contiguous with mouths, sleeves, ears, hands, pockets, and worse. Used, fingered, chewed, discarded, spat out. In their assembled form they continue to testify to the unending flow of de(bri)siring-production and consumption. Even the container doesn’t manage to stand apart to politely display its contents: they glom onto its cellophane panes, making it at once support, podium, and picture plane. These are the readyconsumed, duckrabbits of the idea, calendrical packets of confatality which, even when set primly into their monthly cabinets like exclusive clutches arrayed in the window of a pop-up Dérélicte boutique,3 flicker between ignoble intimacy and distanced contemplation.
Two ostinati impart recognizable structure and style to the zips, by virtue of this existing street-level distribution rather than by artistic design. Extruded keratin filaments whose varying tensile profiles offer an abbreviated portrait of New York’s multicultural inhabitants trace arabesques through volumes of chewed gum, that nutritionally-void oral shock absorber, chomped into formless saliva-softened embryos by legions of stressed-out molars. Absorbed in contemplating these microsculptures, one can easily begin to hallucinate parodic masterpieces, as if hair and gum made up the essential armature of art history: Is that tiny twist of newspaper poised atop segments of multicolor gum a Lilliputian Calder? Do Miro’s mobile elementary forms recur, suspended from hairs, within the trash stratum? Could that precarious parallelogram of oily stuff propped on stiletto-like points be a remake of Dalì’s Premonition of Civil War—or is it that Dalì’s melting forms mimic chewed gum…?
Anticipating a world in which a masterpiece will be praised by saying that it is ‘as beautiful as the meeting of a ring pull and a toothpick on a lump of Juicy Fruit’, in becoming monolithic, the diminutive parodies the exalted. Or perhaps there already is a world down there where everything fine and elevated finds its guttersnipe döppelganger. But which is the model and which the copy? Which way does the traffic really go?
And at what speed? Superimposed on the order of the street, there is the order of discovery. Although ‘each thing has its own rhythm’, the tempo of the zips’ syncopated heterogeneity-in-isomorphy is that of the everyday. The most modest vitrine possible, the cellophane wrapping from a cigarette packet, reminds us that their production is connected to daily habit and the perennial newness of repetition.4
No action could be more symbolic of this than the ritual breaching of this pristine synthetic caul for the first smoke of the day. Each evening’s walk adds a level of selectivity since, even in the same environment, depending on the route taken, the resulting clump will always differ. (This acute path-sensitivity, charted by the maps and notes accompanying Agematsu’s zips, also plays its part in the compulsive gameplay of Katamari Damacy, a game made by a fugitive sculptor in which, each time you play, you create an original sculpture.)
In the ’60s and ’70s, the period most crucial to Agematsu’s artistic development, contemporary art, especially in New York City, moved into everyday life, into the street, and into the realm of consumer goods so as to get a breath of fresh air, but also, perhaps more secretly, to drive the quotidian to excess. In serialist work, the imposition of strict protocols employs humorous repetition to overturn the law of modern life,5 to break through its stereotypies and Sisyphean accumulations in search of a ‘more profound repetition’, in the hope that ‘in concentrating on this boundless monotony we find the sudden illumination of multiplicity itself’.6 Agematsu joins the infernal production line of contemporary existence ‘in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death’.7 ‘I became an artist to be like a machine’, he says: without contempt, without judgment, and with monotonous regularity, processing the readyconsumed to find within it a residual energy of transmutation.
A sky full of stars, we broke it…. Each inorganic vivarium presents an absolutely singular world: fused hypercolor asteroids of boiled sugar candy, hair, fur and nails, grime corals, extraterrestrial fauna, and every so often a stammering shard of lettering or fragment of an image jutting out from the detritus like a billboard from the ruins of a devastated city, overshadowed by the dark chitinous claw of a giant insect bristling with cilia. A new world every time. At the end of each round of Katamari Damacy the clump of items that have been rolled up are hurled into the void where they finally coagulate, fuse, and explode, giving birth to a new star. And in the zips something is being reconstructed too, from whatever comes to hand. The serialist in the street is not just ‘a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise’. He is also an inchling Prince and King of All Cosmos rolled into one, forging new Ideas from whatever filters down to gutter level, stuff from which ‘a beautiful or mysterious object’8 may yet come forth…. Oh! I feel it, I feel the cosmos!9 With these lowly constellations Agematsu rebuilds the heavens, clump by clump, day by day.
- Danté, Paradiso, Canto I:100–142.
- Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975), 74.
- Zoolander (dir. B. Stiller, 2001).
- The original containers used by Agematsu were ziploc bags, from which the series takes its name.
- See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, tr. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5, for humor and irony as two means for overturning the law via the power of repetition.
- Michel Foucault, ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, tr. Donald F. Brouchard and Sherry Simon, in P. Rabinow (ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984 (New York: New Press, 1998–2001), 343–68: 362.
- Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 293. ‘The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition.’
- Sol Lewitt: ‘The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise.’
- Katamari Damacy (Michiro Hoshino’s refrain).