A Questionable Installation: Elias Avellaneda’s Spectacular Assemblage on Jefferson-Wyckoff

Frank Multari

Frank Multari is a photographer and sometimes writer based in Brooklyn. See more of his work at frankmultari.com and follow him on instagram @multaro.

Elias Avellaneda


“If you call this art you gotta be insane, papi. Because not for nothin’, between me and you, not to make a racist statement, but when it’s white people they call it art, when it’s minorities they call it garbage and vandalism. And that’s where it’s at. Honestly, whether it’s white, black, green, Jewish, Arab—that’s fucking garbage there. And it’s not gonna be there past Wednesday, you mark my words. Alexander Otero, quote me on that. Past Wednesday, all this shit is gone.”

Over Labor Day Weekend, a conglomeration of found objects accumulated at the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Jefferson Street in what many assumed was an art installation. The area has since been cleaned up, but while the artist, Elias Avellaneda was busy amassing a compound of Bushwick’s reclaimed stuff, residents and visitors stopped in their tracks, cars slowed to a crawl, and everyone was trying to figure out what they were watching unfold.

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Avellaneda going to town on Wyckoff Avenue the day before Labor Day. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

A van halted and a woman in the passenger seat greeted her vision with a proclamation: “street art”. A tour guide named Freedom described the wreckage as “live action collage” to his small group before going back to the comfort of talking about the art pieces on his beat that he’s familiar with.

At its most imposing the garbage installation forced pedestrians into the street. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

Passerby all took interest and, according to Avellaneda, thousands of pictures. One such onlooker, sporting a carefully curled moustache, contemplated the assemblage and asked, “Is it too hipster to think it’s an art installation?”

That’s a question many in the community were divided in answering. A young man named Brendan, a three-year resident of Bushwick who hails from Idaho, had no doubt that it was art. “The initial thought is, ‘Oh what happened here?’, and then you start to see the lines and very purposeful things. There’s stories here—the champagne, the heels.”

Gabriel Benitez, a thoughtfully soft-spoken man from the Dominican Republic who has lived in Bushwick since 1993, characterized it as art, but understands why some people in the community don’t get it: if he saw this when he first moved to the neighborhood, he says, he wouldn’t have thought it was anything but trash. He credits his art school education with changing his perception of what art could be. When asked whether or not it’s good art though, he paused. “Personally, I would not do something like this. I’m more interested in how long he’s going to get away with this.”

Avellaneda, background, became agitated and quickly retreated in the face of rather light questioning by police. Officer Carcamo, seen in the foreground, was unconcerned with the artistic validity of the project and only wanted to know if he had a permit to obstruct the sidewalk. Shortly after this encounter, Elias started scaling back the project and began clearing the sidewalk of broken glass and other hazards. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

Other residents with deep roots in the neighborhood were less generous when asked for their view of Avellaneda’s project.

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Mike DeJesus standing on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Jefferson Street. He was among several longtime Bushwick residents who expressed disgust over the the project and thought it reflected poorly on the community. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

“Art is art and garbage is garbage, and that’s garbage,” said lifelong Bushwick resident Mike DeJesus, pointing to the colorful scene behind him. Standing by his wife Julia and their three young daughters, DeJesus said, “I’ve lived here all my life, and this shit right here is unacceptable. It’s dirty.”

Julia DeJesus, who must navigate the neighborhood in a wheelchair, complained, “[The artist is] just grabbing everything from the street that he can find and puts it up here. This is not art. Ever since he came, this whole block has been full of dirt and garbage. I’m in the chair, I can’t even get by.”

Detail of garbage installation. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

Two other residents of Bushwick lingering on the sidewalk agreed to disagree. When local artist Espartaco Abreu remarked approvingly, “It’s an expression,” another man who would not provide his name answered, “If it’s an expression, it’s telling someone to wake up because you have a serious problem.”

Espartaco later revealed that he had actually contributed to Avellaneda’s project. “I did a drawing and brought it here and now it’s covered with paint and the damage of Elias’s own life. It was a moment for me to put my art over there without the ego of feeling like, ‘Oh yes, my precious art.’ It was just to see what will happen with the work in that environment.”

When asked to comment on the fact that some residents took offense to the work and found it an eyesore on the community, Espartaco thought for a moment before answering, “When you face somebody and there is something that you don’t like, most likely it’s a mirror of yourself.”

I am unsure that it’s as simple as Espartaco says— and I don’t find it easy to discount the feelings of residents who have lived here the longest. I wondered, as at least one resident I interviewed had, if this would be tolerated by authorities for days if Elias had set up quarters in Manhattan.

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Nena and Mathew Pere (left and middle), scavenge the site for recyclables. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

And then there’s the artistic process itself to consider. While I was initially fascinated by the motivations, and the mind, of Elias Avellaneda, it didn’t take long to find much of his behavior troubling. This culminated in witnessing him use intimidating language to encourage a woman, in front of her three small children, to tell her neighbors not to steal from his installation. The young family appeared in turns dismayed, appalled, and concerned.

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Avellaneda telling a mother with her three children to let others in the neighborhood know that he’s aware of who’s been stealing from his installation. “They stole over 25,000 dollars of my equipment and I’m gonna fuck them up,” he said. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

Is it art? To me that’s not the most relevant question here, but it is the one the community seemed to be focused on when Elias had his installation at its most imposing on Sunday afternoon. Despite what anyone thinks, though, there is at least a sincerity in Avellaneda’s project. In April 2014, presumably when he wasn’t sleeping on the street and making nuisance art, he shared a picture on Facebook of a framed painting he had reclaimed from the trash. His caption for the picture reads, “The best things in life are garbage.”

Just after sunrise on Labor Day, a man asleep on a futon among the vestiges of Avellaneda’s garbage installation, which would only shrink further over the course of the day. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

Featured image: Elias Avellaneda, 34, the man behind the garbage installation that occurred over Labor Day Weekend on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Jefferson Street. Photo by Frank Multari for Bushwick Daily.

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