The Russian Post – as many other national postal services – is the state institution with strict, almost military-like discipline. But not many state institutions can get that personal or even intimate.
Here’s a special one, my best item in this exhibition. This is the wooden postcard – the first one of a kind I’ve ever got. It’s a real postcard made of plywood (knocks), with text on it, and the required stamps attached. It was sent as a postcard, not as a parcel. A plywood A4 sized postcard.
Cooling fan noise
Eduard Yegorov is the editor in chief of the Uyezdny Gorod A, a newspaper published in Alexandrov in the Vladimir region. When he’s at work he’s writing articles, when he is off work he’s writing letters. If only we could call it letters.
A classic example of it – I’ve been trying to send an audio CD by post, unpacked, with stamps glued right to its surface…
I’ve got it!
Not everyone got it, not really.
What he is doing is called mail art, a postal art. It’s about people turning a regular letter into a work of art. They invent their own postcards and envelopes, decorate it with hand-made rubber stamps, and even issue their own postage stamps. The CD story is no joke. A few years ago I’ve got such a CD from Edik [short for Eduard]. It came without an envelope, with stamps and address note on one side and the regular glassy yet scratched layer on another. Right away, I’ve put the disc into a CD player.
Music extract – Wings & Paul McCartney — Let ’em in
It was a Wings record.
Background sounds: post office workers voices (Post office, hello!), scissors, rubber stamps
Mail art is made by all sorts of people – professional artists and the amateur ones, those with a job and the unemployed, men and women, living in rich countries and from the poor ones, young and old, happy and sad. The common people with a penchant for the uncommon mail.
Here we are, at the mail art exhibition at the Alexandrov Art Museum. Eduard had been collecting these items for more than a year. He’s made a free blog website, and invited everyone to send their submission in. The theme is A Window To The World. He was inundated with windows – a brick layer with a window in between from Scotland, a cross-stitched – naturally cross-stitched – postcard from the Netherlands, cats on a New York library window, mountain looming through the window in Chile. But the first ones to see this exhibition were the ordinary post office workers from the post offices all across the world.
And what if you’ve got a customer asking you to dispatch a CD with stamps on it, or a plywood postcard?
Uh-m-m… Well then…
Yekaterina Yakovleva has spent a few years working at the post office (Yekaterina: Well I don’t know). And subsequently she’s left.
I would get worried about its safety – it could easily break. I would suggest covering it with – say – a cardboard. Just for the safety of it. As to the plywood postcard, it should be OK to be sent I believe.
The current post office workers are usually reluctant to speak about their job, they say there are some corporate rules that prohibit them from sharing even the most trifle details about the job. Katya (short for Yekaterina) felt free to speak – she’s not a post employee anymore. We will hear more from her later on, but now to the something that isn’t really appropriate for mail art.
Text-to-speech voice reading a list of items
The following items are not allowed to be sent within the borders of the Russian Federation. Guns and armours, including missiles…
The Russian legislation makes certain notes on what is prohibited for sending to and from the country.
Bills and coins issued by the Russian Federation, foreign currency…
Quite an expected stuff (TTS voice: poisonous animals and plants…) The other countries have the similar lists (…perishable foods…) and those lists sometimes are less predictable (…items posing a high risk of danger to the post office staff).
Peru. The following items are not allowed to be sent: gowns, ties, corselets, kitchen stoves, kitchen mixers, vacuum cleaners, shoe cleaning machines, frying pans, electric irons, TV sets, jukeboxes, record players, communist propaganda, greeting postcards, vitamins, spices, sugar…
This is the second exhibition that Eduard has curated. The first one was dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the Alexandrov Kremlin – an old town fortress, and it was centered around the number 500 (TTS voice: fruit juices…). It took place at the upper level of the Kremlin belfry (spices, sauces, mustard and flavourings). The regional postal branch senior officials were there too. Prior to the opening it was nearly impossible to tell what their reaction to all those frivolities will be.
And what do they say about it? Wouldn’t they get irritated, like – what are you doing, there’s not even a place to put a rubber stamp on!
No. The officials who come to the exhibitions are sure have nothing against it. They are happy when they the Post gets a good press. This is good for them. But it’s not that easy with the ordinary postal workers.
There seems to be hundreds of windows at the exhibition. Cards with the cut-through windows, envelopes with shutters. Card depicting the painted items that allows us to have a peek to a different world. Like this one, a telescope. But sometimes it takes a huge effort to see a window connection in a postcard. Like this one from Ireland.
It was made with a pencil and… It should be a gel ink pen. That’s it.
And there’s a bus driver / A bus driver / A man in a hat who’s feeding a bird / Apparently he is sitting on a window sill / And there’s a green… He should be sitting on a window sill because there’s a green patch / But the bus is in a strange place then / No way, it’s glued.
The only thing that I still remember – the way the beehives should be sent. The sender has to make holes in a wooden box to send it.
Did anyone ever bring you beehives?
No, we’ve never got it.
Germany. The following items are not allowed to be sent: living creatures except for the bees, leeches, silkworms. Used beehive with no bees. Soil from the non-EU countries. Military toys. Cruelty, violence and racism-related video games. Used beehives stands.
What’s the reason for the postal workers to dislike mail art? Is it because they find it difficult to manage it – sorting it, placing stamps, or just because one shouldn’t do it, and that’s all?
Yes – it’s about sorting it out. They know exactly where the address should be written down, or the postal code. And when something isn’t done according to these rules, they get confused. They are the people that adhere to their policies, a kind of habits which are hard to break.
The parcel packaging turned into a sort of a ritual for me. When packing, I used to be standing at the certain distance by the table, at the right angle. The parcel should be placed at the certain position. Then the packaging paper. Sometimes I felt like I was dancing, a special kind of dance thought out to its finer points. I adored it!
…that are placed inside an open envelopes with mineral dust decoration, or glass dust, or metal parts, or similar.
But only one customer have noticed it – he said I cover the parcel so beautifully.
…bank notes, precious stones, jewelry or any other valuable items.
More often, I simply drop the mail art objects into the post box – and wait for the response. Sometime, with a week or two, it gets back with a requirement to add more stamps to it. It’s better not to deal with the postal workers directly but drop it into the box, and then it is hit-or-miss.
It was a big non-dimension… a large-dimension parcel. Yes, I even couldn’t lift it and I had to ask the customer to take it. It was a big box, like an extra-sized keyboard synthesizer. And it has a From Santa Claus sign on it. We’ve got several packages like this, and each time it was a pleasure to give it out. It was like delivering something grom a fairy tale.
Yemen. The following items are not allowed to be sent: toy guns, labels and fabrics with banknote-like patterns, fake postage stamps, propaganda texts.
In the postal rules it says women shouldn’t handle heavy items that are over ten kilos. And was like – I ain’t gonna do that!
…ammunition, Japanese shaving brushes, matchboxes, money, glass, fragile or perishable objects, pink cinchona, radioactive objects, bond certificates, amarillosis viruses, opium, morphine, cocaine and other drugs.
Eduard was nine when he has sent out his first mail art, and he even didn’t knew such a word then.
Brazilian mail art is very easy to tell. It bears a kind if minimalist approach in design, and the stamps look traditional.
Now, it takes only a glance for him to name the country of origin.
Italian mail art is somewhat less structural to me, a kind of Chaos. And very impulsive also. It looks like they get emotional not only in their behaviour or speech, but they bring it to their art.
We have to see it!
These are the Italian pieces. They’ve got a lot of it, I wouldn’t call it Expressionism but rather say Abstract Expressionism.
There is postcard from Marocco. It’s author asks for a reply to be made on a cardboard of a box of La vache qui rit – a French soft cheese produced worldwide. Eva, the author collects those boxes.
Here’s a piece sent in by a girl from St. Petersburg. She is a student there, and she made a postcard with an picture of a TV set. For many, television is a window to the world, just like it was in the Soviet times when people observed the planet largely through the eyes if Yury Senkevitch of Klub Kinoputeshestvennikov (Cinema Travellers Club, a popular Soviet TV travel show). They don’t travel much on their own but spend their lives in front of a TV screen.
Sometimes it looks cute, sometimes it is strange or weird – like a postcard painted with lemon juice. But sometimes it is more of a heartfelt cry.
Whenever someone is starting a mail art exhibition and makes an open call for submissions, he sets up rules and limitations regarding where it will be installed, what is inappropriate for children or, say, for females or sensitive persons. Nevertheless, here’s a piece that escaped my eye as I was making it. This author heavily depicts certain parts of a body, so to speak… Naked parts. He’s from Spain.
Yes, and his works are… That’s not easy. He often depicts genitalia, and strange things. The museum staff said ok to that, but they put fig leaves upon some particular parts. I’ve no idea how this relates to windows, the subject of this exhibition.
Do people think of mail art as of an outsider art?
What do you mean by outsider art?
It’s as if the artists are regarded as weirdos. Or as those who missed their chance to make a fulfilling career. As if it is done by the people who doesn’t fit in anywhere.
I don’t think so because there are also professional artists taking part in this exhibition. Like Keith Miller, a Mexican Canadian who – judging by the publications – is an accomplished artist, but he is still doing mail art. As to the people who generally regard art as a strange thing, mail art looks even more strange to them. It’s not all about the odd fellows, it;s just about the people with a passion for art, about those living for art.
The Post is the state institution with strict, almost military-like discipline. But is there any other state institution that can get that personal, or even intimate?
This was sent by a man from Scotland. It’s a postcard. Here we see a wall, a cut-through window. It’s a sort of a utility building depicted there, and here’s a cow looking out from it. The cow is of a Scottish breed, particular to the region. This was sent by a man who survived an illness, and he has invented his own method of rehabilitation by corresponding with the people of other countries. He asks them to send him images of clocks. This probably may be related to his altered sense of time, since he got ill. I’ve photographed the clocks of the Alexandrov Kremlin for him, and he sent me this card in return. And he told the story of it on the back side of the card – he’s been visiting his brother, and this is the typical rural architecture, and a very special local breed of cow. It’s a whole story, a whole short story told with a postcard.
It was at the post office where I’ve learned how to communicate with people, or, say, the customers. Call it this or that – it doesn’t matter.
You owe it to the post, do you?
Yes. I’ve got a better understanding of people and I’ve got the main idea – you’d better not to act at the heat of the moment. Because you may find it later that the reason for your anger was not the one you thought of. It could be really of no importance, or the people you were angry with were not guilty. It is worth taking everything into account and do it carefully, and then decide what can be done. That’s the lesson I’ve learnt there.
In A very private message a mail artist and a former postal worker who don’t know each other speak about the same – how the personal flourishes in a tough and impersonal world of rules and restrictions.
Mail art is a tradition of switching from the regular and impersonal envelope and postal designs to the hand-made ones. As as result, dozens of decorated and stamped pictures and collages travel across the globe via the air mail at this very moment. Quite often mail artists announce calls for submissions resulting in a museum exhibition.
A small piece of paper can tell a lot about its author’s life, his time and his country. And even the officially regulated list of items that are not allowed to be sent across the state border can act as an insight into the country’s history, policies and cultural norms.
And here is that very plywood postcard from Germany and the museum where it was on display.
More on A Window To The World mail art project, including items described in this piece, could be found at oknowmir.blogspot.ru
Мore on mail at’s history and ideas could be found at the Wikipedia page.
Music used: Flagger by Blue Dot Sessions (CC BY-NC 4.0), Let ’em in by Wings & Paul McCartney (extract).