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