‘We’re sending letters to everyone in the world, one town at a time. The letters all arrive on the same day, causing curiosity, comparison and confusion within the community. Over 2,000 letters have been sent so far. Perhaps your town is next.’ Launched in 2009, Mysterious Letters (mysteriousletters.tumblr.com) is a project by the artists Lenka Clayton and Michael Crowe, which has so far taken place in Cushendall (Ireland), Polish Hill (USA), St. Gallen (Switzerland), Cologne (Germany) and, earlier this year, on two streets in Paris. After staying a few weeks at each location, on the day of their departure the two artists send several hundred hand- or type-written letters – all of which contain different messages – addressed to each inhabitant of a village or neighbourhood. The letters don’t expect an answer, and they aren’t ever exhibited: they exist only in the moment of an unexpected and slightly intrusive encounter with an unknown recipient. The work then unfolds in rumours and discussions among the recipients, thus passing from an individual experience to a communal one, eluding the art world and its tools of communication and promotion, and escaping the exhibition environment to inhabit everyday reality.
The letter and the postal network have long held an appeal for artists, from Stéphane Mallarmé’s Les Loisirs de la Poste (Postal Pastimes, 1894) to the mailings of the Fluxus movement, who sent material through the post in an attempt to find an alternative mode of circulating art that would forego the system of galleries and institutions. This need to invent an autonomous mode of distribution can also be seen in the ‘Airmail Paintings’ (1984–ongoing) of Eugenio Dittborn, shown recently at the Palais de Tokyo as part of the 2012 Paris Triennale, ‘Intense Proximity’. Devised in the early 1980s in response to the restrictions on cultural practice imposed by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, these large-scale portable art works – combining drawing, collage, text, embroidery and screen prints – were folded into envelopes to be sent around the world to where they could be exhibited. Presented at the Triennale alongside their envelopes, to bear witness to the journeys they have been on and the distances they have covered, these works have a double existence: folded letters in envelopes that convert into ‘paintings’ once hung on the wall.
The book Rosa’s Letters (2012), edited by Pia Rönicke, takes another approach to correspondence: the Danish artist immerses herself in the private letters of the Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, written a century earlier, in order to better share her experiences. In the introduction, Rönicke writes to Luxemburg: ‘When I write to you, it is of course to an idea of you, to the Rosa I have constructed through my reading of your letters.’ An ‘idea of Rosa’ is imagined by the artist and transmitted to the reader via a selection of drawings, herbarium pages and letters with the aim of restoring a voice, a way of thinking, an attitude, an era.
From the resurgence of historical practices connected to postal correspondence to its use and appropriation by younger artists, this outmoded, unhurried form of communication has also been deployed recently in the curatorial strategies of international exhibitions, as a possible attempt to establish complicity with the viewing public by addressing them directly. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of this year’s dOCUMENTA (13), wrote a statement of intent in the guise of a letter to a friend in which she explained that ‘information is not the obvious objective of any communication today’. Respecting the codes of the epistolary genre, her letter is a montage of different narrative forms (anecdotes, reflections, comments) through which a portrait eventually takes shape: that of dOCUMENTA (13), considered by Christov-Bakargiev more as a ‘state of mind’ than an exhibition. The letter includes numerous digressions in which she describes her different travels, meals and conversations with Chus, Eduardo, Ashraf and others, without giving their surnames, as if we readers – friends? – were there with them and she were just reminding us of shared memories. At the time, this ‘letter to a friend’ seemed to be the ideal instrument to affirm an engaged subjectivity enjoying close ties with an ideal addressee, thwarting the conventional exercise of a disembodied letter of intent. This form of address was also present in one of the first exhibition rooms at the Fridericianum in Kassel where, in a vitrine, visitors could read a letter from the artist Kai Althoff addressed to Christov-Bakargiev – five handwritten pages of troubling anxiety and sincerity explaining his reasons for belatedly refusing to take part in the show. This refusal was both accepted and subverted by the commissioner deciding to put this originally private correspondence on public display in the place of a work by the artist.
Flying in the face of the communication tools and networks of today, which are simultaneously for everyone and for no one in particular, resorting to the letter appears symptomatic of the will to affirm a relationship of closeness between sender and recipient that goes beyond the information transmitted. It is as though the art works, as well as the exhibitions and the texts that frame them, currently seek to emphasize a process that is inclined towards inclusivity rather than towards producing a closed, authoritarian form. Such an approach leaves the way open to the ‘third part’, as Virginia Woolf defined it in her 1925 essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’: ‘The interest in life does not lie in what people do, nor even in their relations to each other, but largely in the power to communicate with a third part, antagonistic, enigmatic, yet perhaps persuadable, which one may call life in general.’