This multimedia essay explores the connections between the 2019 exhibition “Nari Ward: We The People” and archival material from the New Museum’s exhibition history through the framework of artists who engage with found material in their work. Exhibitions cited are: Nari Ward: We The People (2019), The Keeper (2016), NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (2013), Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century (2007), Chen Zhen: Field of Waste (1994) and Nari Ward: Carpet Angel (1993).
In 1993, Nari Ward was invited to show work at the New Museum for the first time. As part of his artist statement for the exhibition, he wrote, “Whether it’s firehoses, carpets, cotton, etc. or vessel forms like bottles and bags each material has a unique history which intrigues and informs my vision of their renewed possibilities. It is the energy and texture that is acquired through use that is of interest to me; their mutability, the history that they have gleaned through consumption; worn and discarded materials often found on the street are worked, knotted, drilled, ironed or wrung out to become charged with a devotional function and meaning.” 1
His 1993 installation of Carpet Angel (1992) hung in the New Work Gallery of the New Museum’s 583 Broadway location, a hulking, hovering mass born from the simple and readily at hand. The rolled carpets that form the ropey, netlike skin of the angel’s body and populate the garden of detritus underneath were sourced from the floor of Ward’s own Harlem studio, which he sublet from a fellow artist who had asked him to act as steward of the space and the paintings it housed. Ward, disliking the carpets, started to pull them up, and then decided to work them into a new piece rather than discard them outright.
“and choosing to reconstitute unwanted material from the daily environment, Carpet Angel also functions as a mapping of the urban landscape and a reference to its decay. Living off the land, scavenging available materials, is as familiar to the homeless in urban America as it is to the shantytowns of Jamaica. Capitalism encourages ever-growing consumption in every aspect of life, privileging new over old, novelty over practicality. In contrast, Ward’s installation reinvests these waste products with new potential through the transcendence of impoverished media and the creation of a revelatory space.” 3
Common threads do exist, however. The use of found material generally succeeds in bringing the planes of art and everyday life together, requiring the viewer to consider the value of a banal or discarded object within the context of an artist’s studio, a gallery, or a museum. Found objects also partake in a conversation about commodities and economies. They reference local or global circulation; repurposing as a means of survival; or scarcity, excess, and built-in obsolescence as conditions of capitalism. Whether the artist (or viewer) perceives the found object as waste, salvage, outmoded, bartered, or purchased can drastically alter the context of its interpretation and its ontological significance.
But regardless of what -ism has been associated with found material since André Breton’s “discovery” of the Cinderella ashtray,5 there is a consistent assumption about the significance of the use of this medium: that the artist in incorporating it has somehow recuperated, reactivated, or rescued the chosen material from an inevitable death of obsolescence, a present or future uselessness caused by its falling out of the circulation of capital and commodities. There is a Benjaminian romanticism sometimes assigned to this view of the ragpicker-artist, a view that deliberately overlooks the reality that the found material is not only rescued by having artistic value reinscribed onto it through the act of becoming part of an artwork but also, necessarily, new commodity value.
Ward’s realization of this work (which was also installed at the New Museum in 2013 for the exhibition “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Star, Trash and No Star”) began with a lone encounter with a single abandoned baby stroller. “I remember the moment,” he recounted to former MOCA Los Angeles director Philippe Vergne:
“I was walking down 125th street during eight a.m. rush hour. I’m at Lexington Avenue, right near Park Avenue. There’s a Metro North station there, so a lot of people are going in, commuters; there’s a lot of flux and movement. I remember seeing, in all this energy and movement of people trying to get to where they’re going on schedule, this baby stroller with bottles and cans next to a chain-link fence. That moment of this beat-up stroller with all this movement around it really struck me—something interested was going on there. This emptiness was something really visceral. But nobody was looking at it, nobody was seeing it. I just needed more. I needed to collect more of them so people could see it.”7
When New Museum curator France Morin began planning the joint exhibition of Chinese artists Huang Yong Ping and Chen Zhen in the spring of 1994, Chen mentioned that one of his installation needs would be a space in which to burn large quantities of newspaper (both the New York Times and several selections from local Chinese-American publications). Because Nari Ward was still in close contact with New Museum staff, Morin asked Ward whether he would mind sharing his Harlem space with Chen for the duration of Chen and Huang’s month-long residency in New York, as Ward was currently in the process of making work that featured large quantities of burned baseball bats. 9 Brought together by their common act of burning salvaged material—by the need to accumulate volume and then alter the objects in order to reactivate them—the two artists embarked upon a cooperative studio experience that launched a long friendship and several artistic collaborations.
While Huang eventually realized an ambitious project entitled “Chinese Hand Laundry,” which recreated a human-scaled car wash inside the gallery space, Chen’s installation, “Field of Waste,” used more pedestrian and less industrial material: ash from the burned newspapers, bundles of whole untouched newspapers, yards of sewn cloth, sewing machines, and chain-link fences. Both projects pointed to the artists’ own experiences of dislocation from their homeland (Chen and Huang both left China in the mid-1980s to live in Paris) and sought to understand something of the specificity of the Chinese-American immigrant experience.
In order to access Chen’s “Field of Waste,” a museum visitor had to first go through Huang’s installation, which equated the visitor’s physical passage through the work—making contact with the spinning brushes, barely ducking under the swaying felt straps—with a kind of “spiritual cleansing.” 10 At the far end, the exhibition opened up onto a long room where Chen had installed a network of chain-link fences, creating divisions in the space that recalled abandoned lots, back alleys, or—more grimly—something approximating the barricades used to funnel and corral human bodies in bureaucratic transfer spaces (the DMV, customs and immigration, etc.).
Piled tightly in the leftmost enclosure were the bundles of unaltered newspaper, still wrapped with twine. On the other side of the gallery, Chen installed three sewing machines with metal chairs tucked up against their workspaces, each frozen in the act of chewing up and spitting out yards of salvaged cloth, used T-shirts, and rags interspersed with US and Chinese flags. The river of cloth extended down the entire length of the enclosure, at the end of which it was engulfed by the heap of charred newspaper remnants. An Art in America review noted the scent of sludgy ash hanging in the air, while Holland Cotter likened the experience of the space to a “bad-dream sweatshop” in his review for the New York Times. 11
In his initial project proposal for the New Museum, Chen wrote,
“New York is an ethnic mosaic, where the myth still holds true… . Both Huang Yong Ping and I share an interest in current concerns such as wealth and poverty, racism, immigration, material life vs. spiritual life, multiculturalism, and ideological differences… . “A Field of Waste Disposal’ will be built up in two processes: burning and sewing. The first is a usual political and cultural ‘revolutionary means’ in Chinese history, while the latter is one of the essential ways for Chinese immigrants to survive abroad. Burning is destruction while sewing fabrication. However, in this project, by putting these two extremes together, matters will be at the same time ‘neutralized’ and ‘chaoticized.’” 12
In an additional piece of gallery text, assistant curator Alice Yang focused on how the concepts of creation and destruction also speak to consumption cycles within capitalism. “If the sewing machines themselves signify a particular form of labor and production,” Yang wrote, “then on one level, the ashes stand for waste—for the residues of consumption.” 13 In this sense, Chen’s installation broadly parallels Ward’s interest in the recovery of obsolescent material, but Chen goes so far as to recover and activate within the museum the productive object of labor (the sewing machine), the object produced (the sewn cloth, the newspaper bundles), and the wasted remnants of the object (the ashes of burned newsprint).
More specific to Chen’s installation, the status of “pure” production—the actual labor of sewing divorced from para-production such as design and marketing—sites the sewing machines and the yards of salvaged cloth firmly within the locality of New York’s Chinatown in the 1990s. “Chinatown,” Yang wrote, quoting a piece of investigative journalism,
“doesn’t design, cut, or market. It only sews… . The sewing of seams, the cutting of threads, the stitching of buttonholes, one after another, all day long. This labor feeds into the cycle of production that makes up the multi-billion dollar fashion industry in New York. This labor is also the main means of livelihood for many who immigrate to America in search of a new life.” 14
The exhibition “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century” was the first to open in the New Museum’s 235 Bowery building, toward the end of 2007. Co-organized by Senior Curator Laura Hoptman, Kraus Family Curator Massimiliano Gioni and Chief Curator Richard Flood, the exhibition surveyed the conditions of contemporary sculpture that emerged from an “attitude” that was anti-masterpiece and anti-environmental. Instead, the curators put forth a “fluid definition of sculpture that understands itself not as a self-sufficient, complete form but rather as a receptacle, an intersection of disparate materials and images.” 15
Because, as Gioni argued, “today’s sculpture seems to be less engaged in interrogating its own status than it is overexcited by the idea of annexing the whole world to its own body,” 16 a significant selection of the sculptural works featured in the exhibition took found objects, waste, and “second-hand images” as their foundational material. The Museum’s new galleries were filled with artwork that combined unadorned and undisguised architectural fragments, furniture, cardboard, yarn, appliances, clothing, and everyday knickknacks in ways that deliberately lacked the qualities of the monumental sculpture: “massiveness, timelessness, and public significance.” 17 Instead, Hoptman argued that the collection of these sculptures made the contingent primary in a way that was at once “personalized to a level unprecedented in recent sculptural memory” and yet “most intentionally un-private.” 18
On a more concrete level, this meant that while certain artists featured in the exhibition created work that may have had its origins in a subjective connection to a certain found material, the resulting significance, interpretations, or polemics could speak to broader societal or political concerns. Shinique Smith, for example, connected her choice of media—found articles of clothing, accessories, and binding agents such as twine, rope, and ribbon—to a space of memory, seeking to mine the “same sort of sense of discovery that [she] had as a little girl.” 19 For Smith, the operations of this discovery and nonmonetary exchange were at the source of her material, whether it was a scarf found hanging on a New York City park fence or a T-shirt gifted to her by a loved one.
Smith made her “bales” and “bundles”—sculptures she also sometimes referred to as “conglomerates”—by collecting various found and gifted clothing items and accessories, often guided by a process that she calls “found color.” 20 From there, a meditative act of binding pulled the found material into shape, resulting in geometric blocks or spheres that varied significantly in scale. “The flow of the city, compacted bales of refuse, fashion, and urban architecture inspire my work,” she wrote in a 2006 artist statement. “Made of fabric, accessories, clothing and bed linen, the process used to make my bound sculptures is meditative and ritualistic. Tied, and wrapped with force and consideration of pattern, color, texture, and form, my sculptural and wall works appear as minimal chunks, or conglomerate, organic forms that exist on their own or interact with the architectural elements that surround them.” 21
Smith’s finished works have the appearance of geological strata, an overstuffed closet, compacted shipping pallets, or even restrained flesh, bulging out between the tightly pulled grids of twine. The smaller ovoid bundles are scaled to the human body, giving off the sensation of a hastily packed group of possessions that could be easily picked up and carried or tossed into the back of a moving truck. The larger bale-shaped sculptures are more imposing; they shift between a formal, almost painterly attention to color and texture and the visceral reality of the pure volume of accumulated, discarded, and recovered “stuff.”
In 2007, the “Unmonumental” curators and Smith herself connected the works to the practice of shipping enormous quantities of used clothing from America to developing nations. Smith’s bale and bundle forms deliberately echo the compressed pallets of corporate logo T-shirts and unused Superbowl paraphernalia that is part of a $550 million–dollar trade network where American nonprofits regularly ship a billion-plus pounds of used clothing overseas, clothing that is deemed below domestic standards for resale within America. 22 “This is a form of sculpture,” wrote Gioni, “that is concerned with its place in the world, with the amount of space it can take over in a civilization that is already overcrowded with goods, commodities, and waste. It is an art of recycling that suggests a universe on the verge of being completely overtaken by refuse. The fact that this kind of sculpture is mostly practiced in Europe and in America is also a signal that this aesthetic gathers its inspiration from an affluent society that appears to be tired, almost exhausted, or possibly just decadent.”23
Over a decade later, Smith’s works in “Unmonumental” take on added signification as global networks—and the cycles of used, discarded, abandoned, and rescued clothing that move through them—shift. As much as her “failed monuments” still reference the global trade of commodities and an overabundance of cheaply made products, they also speak to the crisis of migrants and refugees forced from their homes by violence and economic precarity. Her little bundles, with their assumed portability, might contain that which can be salvaged and carried across roads, rivers, and dangerous ocean crossings, while the dauntingly large Bale Variants feel increasingly like memorials to “what is lost along the way.” 24
In Japanese, the term okimono [置物 “placed object”] describes small, decorative objects that are usually part of altar displays or traditional domestic alcoves known as tokonoma [床の間]. They can be made from carved wood, porcelain, metal, or ivory, and serve no utilitarian purpose beyond the social utility of aesthetic appeal, demonstration of craft, and connection to religious or social morality and mythology. The word is a combination of the verb oku [置く“to put,” “to place,” “to set down”] and the noun mono [物 “thing,” “object”].
Yuji Agematsu, who was born in Kanagawa, Japan, but moved to New York as a young man in 1980, works directly with the concept of okimono, linking it with the artistic practice of found media. Like that of Ward and Smith, Agematsu’s work is the result of ritual labor, chance encounters, and the careful consideration of any given object’s color, size, and presence. The rituals underpinning Agematsu’s practice are twofold: his daily and meticulously documented walks in specific New York City neighborhoods and the scavenging and collecting of detritus that he finds on the street along the way. The walks can be meandering or they can span only a few square blocks of Manhattan’s grid; regardless of their complexity, Agematsu records them all, along with the time and date, in a series of small notebooks. The found material that he discovers and selects along his walks tends toward the waste remnant: a wad of chewing gum, a pigeon feather, a curly tangle of twine, a sticky label, cigarette butts. Each walk and its discoveries are catalogued through a system of arranging street waste and either pinning it to a board (like a lepidopterist of trash) or, more frequently, displaying it in the tiny rectangles of cellophane used to wrap cigarette packages.
In 1992, former Guggenheim curator Diane Waldman traced the history of the Western art historical use of found material and everyday objects in the exhibition “Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object” and its accompanying publication. In it, she claimed that by the early 1990s, “consumer goods no longer excite as they did in the heyday of Pop art. They may titillate, but they do not shock or provoke.” 28 Waldman noticed that in contrast to the shock-value of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) or the cheeky novelty of Warhol’s brand appropriation, “many of the artists working in the 1980s and 1990s have responded to an object-laden world by pointing out its excesses… . The object per se has lost its power to captivate, and seldom does it transcend its objectness. Its mere presence, however, tells us something about ourselves, our world, and our art.”29
More than a decade later, art historian W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images took on this history again and found it increasingly difficult to pin down in the late postmodern moment. Pondering the lack of a coherent and universal theory of objets trouvés, Mitchell posits that it may be precisely because “found objects themselves … haven’t felt the need for one”:
Everyone knows that there are just two criteria for a found object: (1) it must be ordinary, unimportant, neglected, and (until its finding) overlooked; it cannot be beautiful, sublime, wonderful, astonishing, or remarkable in any obvious way, or it would have already been singled out, and therefore would not be a good candidate for ‘finding’; and (2) its finding must be accidental, not deliberate or planned… . The secret of the found object is thus the most intractable kind: it is hidden in plain sight.” 30
A decade following Mitchell’s book, Nari Ward’s retrospective further reframes the potential of the found object as something beyond the ordinary and accidental, beyond a reference to the overabundance of consumer culture—though it may still do that, too. Rather than rely on the readymade to shock, Ward leans into the rituals of labor to transform, combine, and resituate found materials into objects intended for contemplation. Found material, for Ward, can be as accidental as the discovery of the first baby stroller or as specifically sought out as the baseball bats and cotton balls in some of his works. The expansive nature of what constitutes found material in Ward’s work allows for an elasticity of space where viewer and artwork meet.
In more recent years, Ward has even begun reclaiming and repurposing language, treating it as a found material in its own right. One of his first sculptures incorporating “found” text was APOLLO/POLL (2017), part of his site-specific exhibition “G.O.A.T., again” at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, in which he recreated the iconic vertical segment of Harlem’s Apollo Theater sign. In Ward’s version, the neon of the “A” and final “O” intermittently flash on and off, creating a visual oscillation and connection between the words “APOLLO” and “POLL.” Created in the months following the 2016 presidential election, Ward’s sculpture nestles one politically loaded word into the heart of another, a word that gains its meaning and recognition as an iconic theater space (and not the Greek god) from the form in which it appears. The blinking of the sign creates an unmistakable connection between politics and community, between spaces of political voice and theatrical voice, and between political anger and the classic spectacle and judgment of an open mic night.
Maggie Mustard, Ph.D. Marcia Tucker Senior Research Fellow, New Museum of Contemporary Art Published February 11, 2019.