Aside from its idiomatic meanings, a dead letter is one that has been sent to an undeliverable address, and is unreturnable. A dead letter office is where they are gathered in a sort of purgatory that sometimes ends in public auction of items long lost. What better analogy to this institution than a gallery —where the ‘message’ may never get through, and works of art more often than not lie in wait for their relevance to emerge.
With this in mind two Lower East Side gallery spaces in New York show work centering on ideas of existentialism and missed/failed attempts at communication. HESTER, with The person you are trying to reach is not available, running June 3 to July 3, features work by Aidan Koch and Ieva Kraule and JTT Gallery with its Dead Letter Office, running June 19 to July 30, is a group show organized by Anna-Sophie Berger.
Berger’s work ‘26th June’, hung to the left of the latter gallery’s entrance, sets the stage for this missed communication. The hand-colored image’s mandalic form is a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to the adult coloring book, a ‘meditative practice’ for anxiety-ridden, working adults. Indeed, Berger uses the limited coloric toolbox of office workers; highlighter, graphite and colored pencil. Scrawled on top of the drawing/print in a crayon-like all-caps font is “26th JUNE / I AM THINKING: MY / JOKES / ARE NOT FOR / EVERYONE / I AM AGITATED / I AM HUNGRY” —a pointed, humorous class commentary, or an attention-deficit-disorderly shrugging of responsibility for what is to follow.
The exhibition text is an excerpt from a work by Samuel Beckett, and a similar existential absurdism pervades the exhibition. Yet, unlike Beckett who uses a common denominator of human experience (death) to launch his existential [thoughts], Dead Letter Office’s sole common denominator seems to be based in a dialogue reserved for the disgruntled middle-class millennial. I walk around feeling as though the work wishes to put me ill-at-ease, but with vaguely humorous, ultimately impotent, adolescent strategies (silk shirt covered in mud and flung against a white gallery wall, shoe prints on a white wall, white ball gown with “SOCIETY” painted on the front, etc).
Some pieces manage to broaden the discussion. Two movie posters by Canadian collective Feminist Land Art Retreat (FLAR) for their video work ‘Heavy Flow’ mingle the absurdity of gender identity and consumer culture. The title text and chaotic red wash of paint that saturates the composition infers an ultimate, gross embodied-ness —that of a heavily menstruating person. Juxtaposed with the words “Timeless,” and “Explosive,” which are usually seen in cinematic advertising, the work becomes two sides of the same coin —where existing as a body in this world is in fact, both abiding and revolutionary.
A floor piece by Min Yoon resembles a large, decaying tropical leaf, but on closer examination one realizes it is made of green leather. Yoon’s materials list, “pig skin, thread” functions almost as a tandem text piece and has a cutting, deliberate specificity and metaphorical gravitas. This considered gesture tacitly permits the cultural and political implications of the material to surface.
I’m left wondering where the “dead letters” really are in this show. Are these messages “undeliverable” or “falling on deaf ears” because of issues in the way we receive art? Or can the “message” not get through because of the gallery that houses it (and the art and artists they choose to represent)? Or could the messages be lost because this particular curator chose a group of artists under the premise of a broader, more universal existential dialogue, but artists whose scope seems to be limited to a certain realm of class-related ennui? All or none of the above? If anything, the lack of clarity only adds to an underlying sense of frustration that lines of communication are somehow flawed, broken.
A seven-minute walk away at HESTER, a two-person show sets off with a notably similar premise. The undeliverable messages of Dead Letter Office are exchanged for an implied ‘broken’ dialogue between, Aidan Koch and Ieva Kraule in The person you are trying to reach is not available, of course referencing the voicemail greeting many of us may have at one point heard. Accordingly, none of the works in the show were produced as active collaboration. Instead the exhibition is comprised of the independent intellectual trajectories of two artists according to this theme, two distinct voice[mail]s to be interpreted in a fragmented experience of time and space.
That said, it feels as though the artists here are managing to communicate, somehow, to each other, pointing to the fact that the unreachable ‘person’ may not have been the other artist. Rather, the exhibition seems to point more broadly to an idea of unreachable, or unrealizable personhood, primarily through linguistic and formal explorations of embodiment.
Kraule’s ‘Not Really There’, sets the stage for the exhibition. It is a simple, powder-pink sculpture of a high, square table, the legs of which resemble silhouettes of human ones perched on pointed toes. The work is an opening for multiple dialogues: again an implied sexual one between four spread legs, or a more diplomatic or personal one between two or more people who might potentially sit across from each other. The piece is both an invitation to and a refusal of these possibilities, positing an in-between state of bodily and linguistic presence/absence. A suite of ceramic masks, also by Kraule —white with painted silicon contouring —flank the walls, many with perfectly round, gaping openings for the mouth that resemble glory holes. Though carnal, the cavities are also empty pass-throughs to nothing, speechless and muted as the pastel colors that saturate the show.
I’m troubled by the fact that only white bodies are represented, in part because of the conceptual game of bodily presence and absence that appears to be at play. White bodies are permitted to be a-political, in part because of the pervasive belief that they represent “the body”, all bodies. I seek explanation from the exhibition text, hoping to find more insight into what may have perhaps been a series of self-portraits. I only find the insistence towards abstract notions of embodied existence.
That said, the re-workings of white, pink, peach bodies aren’t uninteresting. Unlike the FLAR posters where bodies are implied but notably absent, the (white, pink, peach) bodies in The person you are trying to reach… are represented, but usually abbreviated, amputated, and then pressed back together in a deceptively twee, tasteful forms which disguise a more sinister Frankensteinian modality. For instance, a silicon cutout of human legs by Kraule hang lazily draped over a light fixture, like discarded stockings. Its materiality approximates actual skin, its scale approaches actual legs. Is this Peter Pan’s shadow, or flayed skin hung up to dry? A drawing by Koch called ‘How to Tie a Woman (with a Tiger Tattoo)’, is a comic-like illustration of a leaning woman in two stacked frames. The horizontal axis amputates her body below the elbows and knees; her face obscured by her long, dark hair. The frame directly below shows a foot standing on a table cut off just above the ankle. The composition ‘stitches’ the two independent frames together to a faceless, mute, maimed woman —robbed of mobility, agility, voice, and any identifying characteristics but a single marking, a tattoo on her ankle.
Although The person you are trying to reach is not available and Dead Letter Office are intelligent and deeply considered, I find myself oddly alienated by the work, left wondering whether this is indeed the point. Are these messages intended for the likes of me, for anyone other than the individuals involved in creating and showing the work? Are the messages not getting through because, in the end, this is an insider’s game all along? In any case, both exhibitions, with their dead letters and missed calls, point to a pervasive and legitimate anxiety that the lines of communication (between artists, their work, and the apparatuses and audiences that facilitate that work) is somehow broken. And yet, as the mere presence of these shows attests, they still persist in their attempts to say what they need to say.**