Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton has accustomed us to variations on the theme of travel and Correspondances is no exception. Curated by Erik Verhagen, the exhibition guides us through the world of Mail Art. Correspondences (and Mail Art in general) proposes a travel both real and imaginary, but regarding mail art, it is defintely the former. Because the object, the vessel of the work of art, has an intrinsic purpose. Letters, postcards, packages, they all imply a route within the postal network, connecting a starting point with a final destination; a sender and a recipient. But the travel is also imaginary because the viewer has to use the objects as hints, or clues, to figure out the fiction and the story behind them.
Born in the late 50s, mail art preceded the field of interactive art, which blossomed later in the 60s. In response to the modernist doxa defended by the early institutions, the visual arts sought to move away from the object, choosing to develop aesthetic experiences instead through installations, in situ, environments and other artistic devices. By involving the spectator, a strong emphasis is placed on interactivity, prompting participation in the creative initiative. Moreover, being made in multiple steps, a work of art is no longer bound to a single time and place. This iterative process dissolves the common spatial and temporal guidelines.Every story has a beginning, and this one starts in 1962 when Ray Johnson founded New York Correspondence School. “Mail Art is not a square, a rectangle, or a photo, or a book, or a slide. It is a river,” Johnson said in 1983, evoking the idea of flood (growing with the number of correspondents involved) and flow (spilling of ideas and artworks). He produced thousands of participative drawings, letters, and collages, where he wrote, “Please add to and return”, and/or “Send to”. The recipients thus became either cosigners in the work of art or delegate remailers. The artist transposed the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse to Mail Art, but replaces magic with mass culture.
Let’s continue with Eugenio Dittborn and his famous series of Airmail Paintings. The artist pays tribute to the master in ‘Ronsard meets Ray Johnson’ — a correspondence sent to Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton specially for the exhibition. Dittborn compares the values of classical humanism borne by the works of Ronsard and Johhson: free will, inquisitiveness and an open mind. Airmail Paintings constitute a pragmatic invention, allowing the artist to communicate from Chile with the rest of the world, while avoiding the need for a complex cultural infrastructure. They circulate as folded letters, and are exhibited as unfolded paintings. Looking at his work, one can easily hear the first sentence of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin: “the work is not a thing, it is neither finished nor unfinished but in essence interminable, destined to metamorphose, to be reproduced: an endless becoming, a coming always in the future.”
Now have a look at Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, a series of photographs picturingblack rubber boots in dramatic or enigmatic situations. Photography places itself at the service of a narrative fiction, depicting the famous footwear at the bank, in the market, on river boats, in a love affair. Bypassing the traditional gallery system, the piece was distributed through postcards to approximately 1,000 correspondents belonging to the art world, including artists, writers, and galleries, among others. Additionally, Antin spread the experiment over more than two years, updating her network on the whereabouts of the boots. By staging their travels, Antin promotes these objects to the rank of lead character in this epic adventure, projecting the here and now, anywhere and at any time.
At the dawm of the digital age, Mail Art appears as a mise en abyme of what underlies our relationship with the world: networking, interrelation, and interdependence. In the scope of art, this retrospective highlights issues that are still very relevant today. At the centre of current debate is whether the general public should be involved in the definition of artistic processes and while there is rightly much talk of meditation in digital interactivity, Correspondences brings us back in time where interactivity operated as a medium.
Selected artists: Eleanor Antin, Stephen Antonakos, Walead Beshty, Alighiero Boetti, Jan Dibbets, Eugenio Dittborn, Clarisse Hahn, Ray Johnson, Guillaume Leblon, Kurt Ryslavy, Vittorio Santoro, Danh Võ