Review by Siân Tonkin
The birth of postcards can be traced back to 1840, gaining popularity with the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and became a staple of British seaside tourism with the birth of locomotives in the early 1900s. Therefore, the presence of the Eiffel Tower on a postcard as a press image for Paris Correspondence School seems no accident, referencing both curator Charlie Levine’s summer trip to Paris and the beginning of the postcard hey-day of the 1890s. Having also made reference to cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who sent ‘literary postcards Denkbilder, thought-images, full of moving physiognomical details of the urban topographies of cities’ 1 and to artist Ray Johnson’s mail art (c.1950s onwards), in particular to Johnson’s New York Correspondance [sic] School (1962), which encouraged the participation of the recipient, Paris Correspondence School is a celebration of the postcard as a notation device, as a sign of life and as a protagonist in the game of chance.
Undertaken as a project of personal interest, Levine’s exhibition is the result of a desire to work with a network of artists that have become friends. She asked artists Darren Banks, Ana Benlloch, Tom Butler, Martyn Cross, Vicky Cull, Anna Francis, Jo Gane, Caitlin Griffiths, Gabo Guzzo, Elizabeth Hingley and Tomonaga Tokuyama, Lulu Horsfield, Calum F Kerr, Hayley Lock, Kira O’Reilly, Samantha Voong and Emmett Walsh to design one to two images to be printed onto the front of postcards and chose one from each artist. She then issued the following statement with the pack of final postcards to each artist: ‘Please send the modified, messaged or new postcards to the below addresses’2, which included the addresses of the contributing artists and Levine herself.
The original postcard images become almost secondary to the amendments made by the artists involved. Horsfield’s work reveals a series of lists including activities embarked upon by the artist on a Paris trip against a backdrop of geometric cut outs. Kerr’s approach is large scale, creating a red and black drawing of a lion (’) with horns over the top of all of the postcards in the original set, while Gane’s work references the postcard as a holiday tool, musing over the local characters of Nuneaton that the circle of artists should look out for. Perhaps the most interesting approach is by Hingley and Tokuyama, who use their own fingerprints in ‘hand-picked blackberry juice’3 to make images emblematic of Mickey Mouse, apparently detailing in comic fashion the day’s activities. Here, the postcard becomes a life-trace, reminiscent of artist On Kawara’s ‘I got up at’ (1968 - 1979) postcard series or even his telegrams letting the recipients know that ‘I am still alive’ (1966 onwards).
The means by which the postcards are displayed fetishizes this kind of correspondence. In an age of emails and texts, a physical object received by post is something to be cherished. Levine has categorised the postcards according to by whom they were sent, sandwiched between sheets of Perspex, away from environmental dangers. The value placed on these postcards is only compounded by knowledge of the process of their production: a small number of reproductions, amended by each artist and in some cases, altered a second time before being returned to Levine. Interestingly, Levine commented on not knowing what price to put on these items, particularly as the artists involved considered them of no more worth than the postage costs involved, yet she considered them to be far more valuable. Thus this kind of missive, known for its rapid nature of communication becomes considered and valued from physical, monetary and very emotional perspectives.
Paris Correspondence School works in that it captures the joy of writing, drawing, sending and receiving postcards; it revels in the idiosyncrasies of personal character and the possibilities of chance; it highlights the human desire to archive or be part of something. While the method of display is questionable, the content of the exhibition is not. The postcards the artists have produced are indeed akin to Denkbilder, as they are something to be treasured.
1. From Beatrice Hanssen’s ‘Introduction: Physiognomy of a Flâneur: Walter Benjamin’s Peregrinations through Paris in Search of a New Imaginary’, Walter Benjamin and The 2
Arcades Project, London and New York: Continuum International, 2006, p. 1.
2. From email correspondence with Charlie Levine, 27/01/11
3. As stated by the artists on their postcards. See www.trove.org.uk for images.
Siân Tonkin is the Co-Director, Companis