(Paris.) For this new exhibition at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, curator Erik Verhagen made a selection of artworks labelled as Mail Art. There is a certain danger though, that today's audience will be misled by the term. This is not about digital art, the genre is rather old-fashioned and does not focus on emails, but on yesterday's snail mail.
Some of the works don't really fit into the context, or only do with an utterly vague definition of Mail Art. Of course, Guillaume Leblon's sculptures of doors and letterboxes present devices to receive mail - but you wouldn't call the use of unplugged screens in an installation Video Art, would you?
Under this approach, a film can be Mail Art, too.
Mexican Letters (provisory title, 2013) is the outcome of Claire Hahn's three months residency in a remote Mexican village. Written phrases in letter style (words by Thomas Clerc) interrupt the otherwise uncommented images.
The scenes describe a traditional society where the children of the rich wear white Lacoste shirts and ride over their vast properties like Little Lord Fauntleroy, whilst the poor are killing and eating rattlesnakes. If you were cynical you'd say, it is about the people who buy LV bags and those who produce them.
A rural community where life's cruelty has not yet been outsourced and children assist in slaughtering a pig before they can talk - if you cannot afford action figures just play with a decomposing skull. A little boy is seen taking part in a horse-riding contest, he falls on his head to drop out unconscious, but the sad thing is how it does not matter at all if he will suffer permanent brain damage or not - there is not the slightest chance he could ever visit secondary school anyways.
The cultural highlight of village life is apparently a beauty contest (either it's that or the local cathouse holds a public casting). Young women in hot, (really, really hot) pants and bikini tops await their appearance before a cheering crowd in a dark hall. The whole film is composed like a video postcard from a society that seems exotic, for not to say bizarre, in the eyes of a distinguished European audience. It transfers the spirit of a postcard to another medium and the communication works in both directions: as a postcard from and as a love letter to Mexico.
Genuine works of Mail Art have been sent by mail themselves, and this fact is essential to their form (most artworks are being sent from studio to gallery to collector to museum to auction house but this usually happens after their completion, "after the signature", and is not a part of the creative process). Only here we get the notion, that there is more to it than the use of a common motive, something significantly unique that qualifies Mail Art as a proper genre.
In general, a letter can announce or report something - or be an act in itself (speech act theory -> John R. Searle, -> John L. Austin). A declaration of war (when those were still made), a court or commercial order, the ending of a relationship becomes official and legally valid as soon as the recipient receives it. The delay of reception is the characteristic of written/recorded communication in contrast to oral communication, which is either understood immediately or not at all. Writing introduces time into communication.
Mail Art is closely related to performance art. The act of sending, the work's delocalisation integrated into the creation process, can best be described as a performance. Sending the piece is a performative act, by doing it the artist creates a work of Mail Art. The defining characteristic of Mail Art seems to be how a performance and its documentation fall together in one artwork.
A conventional performance exists only for an instant, condemned to vanish immediately upon its coming into existence. In order to preserve the moment for posterity, artists depend on photographic or filmed documentation. In Mail Art there is seemingly no need for external documentation, as a manifest piece already exists. A letter, a postcard or a parcel remains as the attempt to materialise and preserve the immaterial act, contrary to the mere fugitive aspects of the pure artistic gesture. The performance survives in the artefact.
When Ray Johnson from the 1960s onwards sends letters to museums, the act of sending is a performance in the sense, that it is an artistic gesture essential to the work. An action becomes an artwork.
Each letter is also a manifest art object, clearly differing from photographic or filmed documentation. But this advantage is dubious.
Confronted with Ray Johnson's letters in a vitrine like at Espace Louis Vuitton, the audience perceives them as static artworks and the question whether they have actually been sent or not becomes somehow irrelevant. First of all they are collages.
If the artist had never sent them but just produced them as such, would there be any loss of artistic quality?
And how can we be sure that they have really been sent?
The same can be said for Alighiero Boetti, who worked with stamped envelopes, which he sent back home from his travels to "exotic" countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia,...). He created beautiful artworks just by arranging stamped envelopes on paper. Occasionally turning one of the stamps upside down, he breaks the uniform pattern and creates a unique aesthetic, en passant alluding to a traveller's pseudo-integration in the foreign context.
But has he really been there or just procured himself with the authentic stamps?
Eleanor Antin's 100 Boots series consists of 51 different postcards that she sent to a thousand institutions and VIPs (curators, scholars, artists, even humble critics) between 1971 and 1973.
Each postcard features another landscape view with boots. Probably the artist was a huge Nancy Sinatra fan (These Boots are Made for Walking, 1966).
The work series reflects on the act of writing from abroad. A postcard is meant to show off, to tell others to where you have set your feet. Usually it depicts a place that has been visited by an innumerable mass of tourists before, each of whose footsteps has left the same traces. The existence of a postcard itself suffices to justify a location's importance: If there is a postcard it is a touristic sight. But with 100 Boots we find a collection of California's least touristic spots, their beauty has not yet been confirmed. The artist manipulates the environment and creates significance by her action itself; this is a definition of art.
By sending them to individuals who have the power to make an artist's career she surpassed the intimate sphere of a postcard that is meant to be sent to friends and family only - you would not send a job application in the form of a postcard, even if it was for a position in tourism (maybe you still could in times before there were HR departments and the soulless robots working in them).
Eleanor Antin`s mailings were meant as an art exhibition themselves - a highly elitist one, for a handpicked audience only.
She was already in the business for about ten years, but "100 Boots" definitely pushed Antin's career to a new level with a 1973 exhibition at MOMA that finally brought these works to a wider - and anonymous - public.
The postcard form is interesting as it limits the length of text - where letters have turned into emails, postcards have become tweets today. Antin willingly subjected herself to these restrictions.
Still, if she had not sent the postcards but edited a photo book or handed them to a befriended curator/dealer, would the spirit of the works have been lost?
It is always useful to put oneself in the position of a future art historian who stumbles upon a work from some forgotten artist. In this thought experiment it would be impossible for the above-described cases to establish whether the artefact has been sent or not. We still depend on meta-information, on external, objective documentation. Photographs, videos, a newspaper article or even the recipient's testimony are much more trustworthy than an artist's word (you will forgive me for this blasphemy).
The "performantic" aspect exists when and only when the letter is sent.
After its reception it is transformed into a document of what has happened. It does not succeed in keeping the moment alive; the energy is not stored but transformed. Now is it really true, that these works carry their own documentation in them?
A letter, a postcard written by an artist is sent. Once it has arrived at the recipient it becomes a static object again. There are traces, a stamp, but to accept them as proof of what has happened we need further confirmation. It follows that Mail Art leaves even less traces than classical performances. There is no visual documentation of the specific artistic action, all there is are the claims of the persons involved.
Without any explanation we see nothing but a collage, a drawing, a text, an object. We are told - by comments that are not a part of the artwork itself - about a gesture, a communication act, that took place in the past and that is (was?) a part of it. If we compare this with a traditional performance, for example of Gina Pane's self-mutilations, the gesture itself is equally lost, but photographic documentation leaves less doubt about its past reality than a simple stamp.
Mail Art integrates the idea of performance art as a unique artistic gesture. But when it takes itself as documentation and proof of this same gesture it fails. The form does not preserve the action. In a great paradox the supposed advantage goes into reverse. Instead of being its most significant characteristic, the performance turns out to be independent of the object.
This is important. When object and performance are two distinct works, there is nothing special about Mail Art and the term proves void.
A collage that is sent by mail does not differ to a sculpture an artist crushes over his head in another kind of performance.
However, there are many great works in this exhibition. To mention only two more of them:
In 1968 Dutch artist Jan Dibbets announced a performance with a postcard showing a balcony marked with an "x" and a text saying on a specific date the artist will perform some banal gesture at the designated place. Dibbets sent it from the United States to his own address in Amsterdam, incidentally pointing to an artist's full curriculum and the overestimation of spontaneity for the "artistic" lifestyle. We don't learn how many postcards have been produced, but two samples are exhibited at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton to show both, front- and backside.
Again there is uncertainty. This postcard is obviously more than a simple flyer (it is, is it?). Is it a first part of the performance or a separate event? Or has there been nothing else at all and this is all - what: a performance and its own documentation or something else?
Is this different to Lawrence Weiner describing a fictional situation in a phrase written on the wall (not included in this exhibition)? In the moment the postcard is created, the event - "Jan Dibbets posing on the balcony" - has not yet taken place.
It may have afterwards, but we know precisely nothing about it.
This seems to be not much different to Conceptual Art, it evokes a mental image, a performance, without actually showing it.
Võ Dinh further elaborates on Conceptual Art. A historical "letter to his father", which St. Théophane Vénard wrote on the eve of his execution in 1861, is routinely copied by the artist's father Võ Phung, and sent to whoever is willing to buy one. Only after Võ Phung's death will the number of letters he copied by hand be unveiled.
I have not made up my mind yet, what the artist wants to tell us with this.
But it feels very smart.
A bit of Kafka, a bit of time-denial, inversed roles, a play on the individual and the general, on art market definitions of editions and unique pieces, etc. In any case a good idea if your old man feels bored in retirement.
The exhibition as a whole gives the visitor much to think about.
With Mail Art, the artist reaches out to the audience and tries to augment his control over the work's reception; there might be a stronger link between artist, work and selected audience than is usually the case (contrary to a private commission the artist is perfectly free, his choice of recipient is unknown to anyone but himself). But this is only true before the work is reproduced in books and catalogues, before it enters a museum or the art market.
Communication means a (non-)transfer of information, it is a disposition to the world. So is art.
In a wider sense, every artwork might be described as a letter to the audience (and every artwork you do not create as a letter to the world saying you are not an artist) - "You cannot not communicate" (Paul Watzlawick).
Thank you for reading up-till here, I know, it's a freaking long and abstract critique.
And don't you go and change your LV handbag for some stylish brown parcel to carry around with you!
Correspondances, Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, 01 February-5 May 2013