To most people, fossilized candy, hairballs, and animal bones belong in the trash, but for Yuji Agematsu, such detritus deserves preservation for posterity. For nearly four decades, the Japanese artist has picked up such objects while walking in New York City, keeping the everyday discards of its denizens in clean and clear plastic wrappers of cigarette cartons. This practice may cause the average human to grimace, but it creates, for Agematsu, a systematic, personal record of his surroundings. It is a collection pregnant with meaning, although at first glance, worth nothing at all to the unknowing eye.
Agematsu’s collection is just one of many on view in The Keeper, the New Museum’s current exhibition that explores the rituals of accumulating and preserving all sorts of items that hold immeasurable meaning to their owners. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and organized as a series of mini-exhibitions, it is a show of captivating human stories told through our belongings. Some of these, like Agematsu’s, are found; others, created — these may be more akin to the kind of art you may expect to find at a museum. The Keeper differs from the New Museum’s previous ones in that it blurs the line between artist, collector, and owner; instead, the museum is highlighted as a preserver, to safeguard and display what may otherwise remain largely disregarded or forgotten.
The exhibition is also unprecedented for holding the greatest number of objects the New Museum has ever featured in a single exhibition, with over 4,000 articles spread across four floors. These include hefty, colorful scrapbooks — classic symbols of collecting — collaged by Shinro Ohtake to form mesmerizing records of visual culture through the years; sentiment-steeped clothing that belonged to Howard Fried‘s late mother; and an archive of photographs of Ye Jinglu, a Chinese man who, for whatever reason, sat for a studio portrait every year from 1907 until his death in 1968. In one gallery, over a dozen stacks of drawings on A4 paper tower over visitors’ heads, with a table and chair slid into the reams to offer a sense of scale. The papers feature scribbled drawings by German artist and self-described “super-medium” Vanda Vieira-Schmidt, who saw her images as a means to counter demonic forces she felt. While you cannot see every individual drawing, the monumentality of her output is clear, the commitment to her efforts immediately understood.
Images on paper continue to accumulate in the neighboring gallery, where the content of each is necessary to a collection’s overall message. For his installation “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870,” Henrik Oleson has diligently compiled paintings, drawings, and sculpture — overwhelmingly portraits — from centuries of Western art history, printing them out and pasting them on large frames that resemble black chalkboards. Organized by categories that neglect time and artists’ intentions such as “Masculinity,” “Violence,” The Effeminate Son,” and “American Dykes in Rome,” Oleson’s clusters offer unconventional readings of familiar images — specifically, ones focused on, as the work’s title spells out, homosexual and homosocial narratives. The “Bondage” section, for instance, features various artists’ takes on the motif of Christ at the Column; “Some Faggy Gestures” draws attention to the hand positions and poses of male sitters in famous paintings by Botticelli, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, and many others. Research-intensive, with some sections including background texts on topics like sodomy to cross-dressing, Oleson’s installation is one of The Keeper‘s standouts: it is a collection intended not just for its owner but is framed as a lesson with revealing and important implications for all viewers.
Similarly, Ydessa Hendeles’s sweeping installation attains the full force of its meaning only from the sheer number of printed matter — specifically, photographs — that the Canadian artist and curator has amassed over time. Brought together in what stands as The Keeper’s centerpiece, “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002) examines the widespread, time-sweeping phenomenon of the teddy bear. Hendeles has transformed two rooms in the museum into an archive of photographs she has spent years building through online auctions and vendors of vintage prints, and is bound only by the presence of the stuffed animal. Frames fill every inch of the walls and line the insides of mahogany display cases so the space resembles a cabinet of curiosity; there is so much material present that Hendeles built steel mezzanines and spiral staircases to create an additional floor.
Hendeles’s painstakingly amassed hoard speaks to the toy’s mass-market success but also makes clear an object’s power to hold momentous value. She has framed each image on the walls similarly and presents them with no additional labels — like Oleson’s images, they are stripped of their original narratives. Close observation, though, reveals that the display follows a system, with the pictures organized by typologies: find toddlers with teddies in one area; vintage class portraits in another; endearing Christmas snapshots occupy another zone; and there’s even a section of erotica, filled with scantily clad women posing with the stuffed animal. The prints feature large bears, small bears, bears with celebrities, bears with athletes, bears with dogs, even people wearing bear suits. Hendeles also arranges the photos by their sitters’s identities, nudging us to consider how certain details may shift our reading of these innocent portraits: one mahogany case holds photographs of black families and individuals with teddy bears; another, photographs of Nazi families, including a portrait of a baby within a frame bearing the swastika. Actual teddy bears from a select handful of photographs also sit in the cases, accompanied by texts recounting their histories.
These personal mementos express the childhood sentiment attached to teddy bears that is so easily understood by so many regardless of identity or background — and so strong that even images of the toy as a playful, sexual adult fetish immediately make sense. Hendeles’s collection relays The Keeper‘s overall emphasis on preservation so successfully as it centers on an item universally known and cherished as an object of comfort despite its simplicity. And with everything so impeccably conserved and displayed, “Partners” also highlights the role of the collector, whom we so often have to thank for finding what may otherwise escape notice.
Hendeles’s project revolves around human nature, but many other collections in The Keeper center on fascinations with the natural world. Presented alongside Vladimir Nabokov’s famous scientific, carefully annotated and illustrated studies of butterflies are gleaming stones collected by French polymath Roger Caillois, some illuminated on light tables, that convey the diverse beauty of our environments. On the same floor are Wilson Bentley‘s photographs of snowflakes that proved no two of the ice crystals are alike, as well as charming paintings of apples and pears by Korbinian Aigner. A Bavarian pomologist, Aigner spent over 40 years until his death in 1966 documenting the various species of fruit he nurtured and harvested. A few dozen of his over 900 postcard-sized works are on view, with each set against a black background and numerically labelled, representing an incredibly niched collection but one rendered with the utmost care.
I felt a similar sense of devotion looking at wooden sculptures of animals and mythological beasts whittled by Levi Fisher Ames in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kept in hinged shadow boxes that Ames would display at circuses, each figure, whether real or fantastical, has individual labels with details noting its size, weight, and source region. Like many other collections in The Keeper, this felt like his personal attempt to make some sense of the world’s wonders, to introduce an order to nature’s mélange of organisms.
The vast majority of collections in The Keeper came to exist after years of hunting or creating, but some arose as pressing engagements. Tucked in the museum’s shaft space between the third and fourth floors are artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, preserved during the Lebanese Civil War. Its then-Director General of Antiquities Maurice Chehab had hidden some objects in attempt to save them; the now partially melted and burned metal, glass, and terra cotta surfaces attest to his fast-thinking act of preservation that has allowed us to see some examples today. Susan Hiller‘s video “The Last Silent Movie,” which loops audio clips of endangered or extinct languages, is charged with a similar urgency. Featuring English subtitles that translate the sayings, the 20-minute clip is simple, but its message grave. A lullaby in the now-extinct Kuikhassi and a conversation of whistles between speakers of the endangered Silbo Gomero are rare records of individuals who are long gone, alerting us of fading heritage around the world.
When we think of the act of collecting, we may first think of it as a hobby fueled by passion — the enthusiasm to collect stamps, vintage automobiles, or even cheese graters. Hearing the voices Hiller has compiled is a necessary reminder that beyond a leisurely pursuit, collecting may be an act of necessity to safeguard against the silencing of particular stories. The Keeper positions the museum as a significant player in such endeavors.
The Keeper continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 25.