Of Squids and Men: An Introduction to Mail Art

You might have heard of this underground art form, as much a social medium as an artistic one. In the first of two articles, TABlog showcases some examples of mail art.

In Features by Randy Swank 2009-06-27

I got a dried squid. In the mail. It’s an Alien-like brownish monster, hard and flat. I found it some time ago in my box together with other more common pieces of mail. The friend who was so brave – or foolish, depending on your point of view – to face the puzzled look of the postal clerks, had simply glued a stamp on the naked squid, and scribbled my address on its naked body. Nearly every day, when I come home, I find something in my mail box. It may not be as weird as the squid, but it’s always something interesting: handmade postcards, zines, catalogues, artist books, CDs, and of course good old letters (remember them?). Hundreds of people around the world experience the same thing every day, and several thousands more do it with less frequency but still enjoy the thrill more often than not. What have we done to deserve all this? We are mail artists.

Mail art, or correspondence art, is a loose international network of people who exchange artworks, ideas and good vibrations through the mail – both traditional and, more recently, electronic. Actually this is not a cohesive, organised network but rather an ever-changing, organic entity with no center, made up of a theoretically infinite number of sub-networks. There is no leadership, no manifesto, no written rules. It is an interactive, non-competitive, ephemeral practice – intimate and social at the same time – whose members don’t sell their works but exchange them with each other as gifts, completely bypassing the money-driven, elitist, professional art world.

Mail art is many things at once, and everyone has his or her personal approach and motivations. Some people are in it simply to make friends: it’s a sort of pen-palling-cum-art-exchange. Some are more artistically committed than others, but everybody can become a mail artist. The Network has a high degree of tolerance for newcomers and welcomes everybody, regardless of his or her skills. After all, the communicative aspect is far more important than art for art’s sake; the real masterpiece is not the single artwork but the endless exchange going on, day in day out, throughout the world, and collaboration is one of the key words. It is, most of all, a process that slowly insinuates itself and ultimately realizes the old dream of the avant-garde: building an alternative, non-hierarchical approach to culture in which art = life.

The postcard (handmade, of course!), is one of the favorite means of expression. Other recurring “genres” are collage, xerography, rubberstamp art (using both hand-carved and commercial stamps), artist books, artistamps (fake postage stamps), photos, CDs, comics and so on. The list is virtually endless and one’s own imagination is the only limit. The written word (prose, poetry etc) is not as much represented as visual expression, but written contributions are always welcome. As collaboration is one of the key words in the Network, some of the more interesting projects involve the participation of many people. In the case of the so-called “assembling,” for instance, every participant sends a certain number of copies – usually of the same work – to the organizer, who then assembles and collate them into a book or box. Everyone who has taken part in the project eventually receives a copy of the finished work.

Though Japan is not massively represented in the Network, many Japanese have been active mail artists through the years, including Gutai founding member Shozo Shimamoto, Fluxus artist Eiichi Matsuhashi, visual poet Keiichi Nakamura, and Ryosuke Cohen of Brain Cell fame.

A few years ago I was personally involved in a big mail art project in collaboration with Amnesty International Japan, the local office of the worldwide human rights organization. AI’s 2004-2006 worldwide campaign focused on domestic violence against women, as well as violence in conflict and post conflict. So we decided to ask mail artists for help. This, by the way, is by no means the first time that AI and the Network have joined hands to address specific problems (other topics tackled in the past have been torture and the death penalty).

A task group was formed, with myself concentrating on the mail art part of the project (writing the call, spreading the word, and instructing the others on how to collect and catalogue the incoming works), while other people looked for a suitable venue for the exhibition, invited experts and activists to talk, and organized other collateral activities. We were lucky because overall mail artists are socially and/or politically committed people. So we were able to gather more than 250 contributions from all over the world, including postcards, collages, drawings, photographs, and even local artists, who usually are not active in the mail art network, lent or donated paintings, sculptures and embroidery. The end result was “Fighting Back: Stop Violence Against Women”, an exhibition that was a huge success and has traveled to several cities.

The “Fighting Back: Stop Violence Against Women” catalogue costs 500 yen or $5.00 postpaid worldwide.

Copies can be ordered at ilovemondo@yahoo.co.jp.

Randy Swank

Randy Swank. Escaped from his home country in 1992 and found refuge in Japan, where he promptly found a job teaching people how to shout HELP! and avoid being robbed on foreign buses. Since 1997 he has been unhealthily active in the mail art network, unleashing on the unsuspecting public, among other things, the Treatise of Pataphysical Anatomy and the international fake political campaign poster project. When not running after his two kids and from his wife, he is usually busy making zines (one of them is about Tokyo and all things Japanese), writing for high- and lowbrow magazines, and exploring Tokyo. You can read his uncensored, Gonzo-like adventures in Artland at The Randy Reviewer. » See other writings

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