Return to Left Curve no. 21 Table of Contents


"Now is Always and Always is Gone"

Historical Exhibit of East European Mail-Art in Schwerin


Bálint Szombathy

Irrationalism has always played a role in the intellectual life of Eastern Europe, just as it has in its unpredictable daily life. Creative and communicative mechanisms in this part of the world have always had to unravel themselves from within the underlying repressive and oppressive projections of the apparatuses of power, regardless of whether any subversive intentions existed or if one just became resigned to a passive acceptance that things can't change. That this so familiar irrationalism is still functioning after the change in the system in Eastern Europe, can occasionally produce some positive results.

In Schwerin, the county seat of the former German Democratic Republic province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, an historical exhibition was inadvertantly thrown together that brought a once provincial center immediately into the forefront of international attention. In this case the antecedent irrationalism manifested itself because the local State Musuem Director learned of the existence of Mail-Art from a Kalingrad Mail-Art programme, became entangled in the claims of an Eastern European "second-wave," and finally because this movement did have good number of adherents in the former German Democratic Republic.

When he decided, with the influencial backing of the leading ex-GDR mail artists, to bring together under the same roof an historical survey exhibition of East European mail-art from its origins up to 1990, it certainly wasn't because he had exclusively artistic motivations in mind; in fact it's clear that in the beginning this self-proclaimed anti-institutional and anti-systems trend was as much a sociological-subcultural phenomenon as it was a "people's art" armed with creative virtue.

What gives East European Mail-Art its peculiarity is undoubtably reflected in its purposeful identity of being opposed to the underlying socio-political conditions. It's clear that in the first place mail art is a communicative form and only secondly an art which sees the postal system as often being the only possibile venue through which to create a connection to the world at large, in which other -- legal -- possibile outlets were obstructed or prohibited. For a long time the mail-art work that circulated throughout the East European countries didn't represent any kind of new language, since the primary intention was the distribution of ideas and not aesthetics. The postal system's own form of censorship also worked against this kind of exchange. As a result, a lot of work drew inspiration by examining just what the limits could be in interacting with the existing postal system.

Everyone is an Artist

Postcard by Robert Rehfeldt (DDR), 1975.

German Confession

Deutsche Bekenntness (German Confession),postcard by Rolf Staeck, 1977.

East German mail-artists, for example, frequently used envelopes, in contradiction to their fundamental intentions, to mail out postcards that ridiculed an absurd society. This can be seen in many ways as similar to what happened in some LatinAmerican countries, where people working under the guise of mail art frequently were civil rights or leftist activists whom the system persecuted and not infrequectly jailed. The most memorable case was that of Clemente Padine and Jorge Caraballo, on whose behalf the whole Network mobilized to set them free.

Despite the consequences that follow from its different social misson, East European mail art does have something to say about aesthetic values, that go beyond just social functionality and can be said toparallel artistic accomplishments of the movement in western countries. After all, in the West as well as in the East a lot of first-rate artists -- painters, sculptors, writers, filmmakers, etc. -- took part in the circulation of mail art, enriching and sharpening the characteristics of its aesthetic language, as well as its poetic embeddedness.

In the former East Germany the social opposition only appeared symbolically; rather the situation was such that the political oppostion was represented primarily by the Church, which for mail artists was a rather inappropriate partner. Perhaps that explains in retrospect why East German mail art -- inspite of closed, tightly guarded borders and contolled news -- developed by following the impulses of the West and why its members could be said to have been recruited from the alternative camp only if the term is used in its widest meaning. In the GDR work related to conspiratorial writing and visual poetry was so much considered to be a preserve of the activity of the "avant-gard intelligensia" that in the entire field of mail art only the Rehfeldt couple and Guillermo Deisler possessed sovereignty of that expressive form. Because of this, visual poetry and underground book publishing went on a separate path, developing parallel to mail art without blending into it.

The way in which mail art appeared in the former Soviet Union was even stranger. It didn't get started at all until a few people discovered Plebnykikov's futurist-dadaist legacy. It is thanks to those artists that from that experimental literature a kind of samizdat was able to develop whose fragile thread wove through the various natural samizdat fields. And since among them and the trans-futurist poets only the Nikonova-Segal couple used this material also as mail art, Russian mail art capable of speaking with an independent voice, being as it was but a weak thread, for a long time remained constricted to those two people. By the 70's a strong camp of so-called unofficial art developed, which at that time was rightfully considered to be a part of the cultural opposition. Russian mail art that sprang up a decade later, however, found no connection to that earlier development; in fact was considered by mail artists to be part a of elite art.

Where political opposition was always strong, as for instance in Poland, mail art was able to get started, around 1972, on its own power. A similar tendency can be observed in Czechoslovakia during the first few years after the fall of the Prague Spring; however, real mail art was unable to develop. Some artists, whom we could associate with mail art, remained mainly other types of artists, primarily conceptualists. In Hungary, through Endre Tót's rubber stamp and postcard work, mail art also appeared fairly early by 1971; but after that a rather eclectic period followed, in which primarily officially established artists were involved. It was only during the 80's that a field for mail art developed which showed characteristic underground features.

It is commonly accepted that mail art was part of the civil rights and democratic opposition in the communist countries, strongly dependenct on the viability of the opposition in their regions. Since the utopianism of mail art in the East European countries also revolved around ideas of communication, and since free communication came up against strong opposition, mail art always came up with things to say that developed from real problems.

The retrospective exhibit which opened in July of 1996 was inaugurated by László Beke, Director of Budapest's Mücharnok (Palace of Art), during which he announced that the material will be shown in the Hungarian capital in 1998.

Faithful to its own foundation mail art adjusted to two kinds of comunicative forms that were immanent in its nature. The first is that of two people, namely the sender and addressee, between whom a direct connection is built; and because of this it is much more intimate and real than what belongs in the second category, that of so-called project-work, which is prepared like a "homework" assignment with a specifically defined theme.

It's common knowledge that the modern history of mail art began through individual efforts, nourished by new realist and fluxus ideas, furthered by manifestoes that influenced hundreds of its practicioners. It was brought to public awareness through so-called fictional-instituions, youth groups, homes, private galleries, libraries, various kinds of clubs -- in other words, through the underground. This was so since the movement's ideologists made it a point of shielding its participants by keeping big state institutions from hearing anything about who they might be.

In keeping with the above, the art historian Kornelia Röder's Koncipi exhibition's material was primarily based on the individual accomplishments of those artists who, within a given country's cultural circles, directed, organize and motivated the trend's inner life, as well as producing significant work of their own.

One of the most comprehensive projects was Kees Francke's Holland network's "Workers' Paradise" (1987), which because of its thematic connections also proved to be able to function within the East Eurpean context. Among the former East German artists' undertakings the most comprehensive were Joseph W. Huber's "Nature is Life -- Save It" (1977), and Birger Jesch's mail art compliation, "Target Project" (1980). Among the movement's representative political endeavors were Jügen Schweinbraden's "Solidaritet für Solidarnosc" (1981) action and the collection of works titled "Iron Curtain" (1982) by Piotr Rypson.

In the Yugoslavian section there was the documentary project called, "Feedback-Letterbox" (1973) by Bogdanka Poznanovic, which through its ground-breaking significance can be taken as marking the beginnings of mail art in the former Yugoslavian cultural shpere. The other project shown was Nenad Bogdanovic's "Music in Visual Art" (1987) titled documentary exhibit. Among individuals, work by Miroljub Todorovic, Andrej Tisma and Bálint Szombathy were featured that related to the exhibit's theme, and the organizers promised to make up for their omissions by including work by Slavko Matkovic and Jaroslav Supek in future versions of the exhibit.

So with the exception of Bulgaria and Albania, all of the East European countries took part in the development of the network, and it was most densely woven in the territories of Poland, the former East Germany, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia.

(Subsistence- Level - Standard- Project), by Emmy Grant (Tamás Szentjóby ). Ecart's Postcards No. 13., Geneve, Switzerland. 1977

Image by Inconnu Group, an anonymous group of artists active during the '80s. They disbanded after the fall of the socilaist system.


In mid-September of 1996, the Schwerin retrospective organized as a closing event a three day conference on the theme of alternative communication, in which several of the 60's-70's pioneer mail artists took part. The event was not only filled with the often contradictory statements by the artists and scholars of the movement, in intellectual presentations about alternative communications; but timely artists' actions and performances were also presented (László Kerekes: Network for Sleeping Rembrandts; Bálint Szombathy: Performations of Memory -- Homage to the Ultimate Networker).

In his Mail Art -- Opposition or Escape? address, Géza Perneczky dealt with the illusion-creating characteristics of the communicative form. He emphasized, however, that the illusions and utopianism of the network were not entirely in vain. For Perneczky mail art is in the first place a form of ritualized communiation, more of a sociological phenomenon than an unambiguously articulated artistic system. Perneczky's presentation also made of point of criticizing the Internet, which he considered to be primarily commercial and conformist.


Similar premises came out in Joachim Blank's talk on Internet art projects: the co-author of "The Inter-national City" proposal failed not just because of the Internet medium's inability critically reflect on itself, but because he also had to defend himself from those legitimate attacks according to which the general forms of relation that have been adopted were the outcome of research designed to serve purely military purposes; that it will never be able to replace direct human contact; and finally that it can only reach an elite.

The debate that emerged about the new network, to be sure not entirely without reason, ended in a distrustful, emotionally overheated atmosphere. It should be pointed out that such a clash of ideas is necessary during a time when an ever faster growing mass medium scrambles to become established; perhaps this is so that the still slumbering creative possibilites may come to the surface.

Before surveying the development of Polish mail art under really-existing socialism, Piotr Rypson, in his "The Network's Methodology" presentation, put forward an interesting cultural-historical proposition. According to him, the origins of mail art are not to be located at the turn of the last century, but substantially earlier. Rypson traces mail art as a subversive communicative system back to the VI century with the appearance of the so-called "Letters from Heaven", which supposedly God, rather Jesus, had sent down to Earth. This form can be taken as being a manifestation against the dogmas imposed by the Church and clergy, which they, for that very reason, rose up to battle against. In the XIV century the development of the circulating letter's newer, no longer religious, this-worldly content, can be observed. As long as the form of correspondence concerned love, happiness and the good life, recipiants who would break off the correspondence would be inviting threats and censure. According to Rypson this form of correspondence was popular up until our century, especially during times of crises.

He went on to point out that with the change in the system in Poland, unofficial mail art as a subversive communicative system had completed its mission, as it had in the other Eastern European countries. The younger generation of artists, having thus been freed from the burdens of having to play a social role, now shows interest instead in techo-culture or favors the passive Internet.

Guy Schraenen sketched the development of Western alternative communicative systems dating from the 60's, pointing out that in contradistinction to Eastern Europe or Latin America, Western mail art didn't play a role of trying to undermine State authority nor took upon itself to spread any of the subversive artistic forms; rather it focused on the marketing aspect of art. According to Schraenen, decline set in during the 80's when in the West the alternative, non-commercial, scene disappeared, as did the few galleries of quality. All of this happened when the influence of the economy on culture greatly increased and a way out for the younger and older generations who had remained external to the system was no longer possible. Today's museums are more interested in attracting mass audiences than in presenting good art.

For the closing debate of the conference, mail artists, more or less of the same generation, from all over the globe sat once again at the same table: Leonhard Duch from Latin America, Joseph W. Huber and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt of Berlin, Birger Jesch from Blankenhain, Thomas Schulz from Poland, H.R. Fiscker from Switzerland and Klaus Groh from Germany. A common direction for mail art however was unable to come out of this, undoubtedly because of its inherant eclecticism. Thomas Schultz said: " We are only concerned with mail art!"

Besides the importance of the conference itself the technically excellent, very useful catalogue is of a lasting art-historical importance. It contains historical studies of each country, artistic statements, reviews of exhibits, lists of catalogues, etc. In looking through the catalogue, one is left with the impression that the historical role and significance of mail art has as much weight as any other modernist trend.

Today mail art is pretty popular among the young. Though hardly anyone among the pioneers seriously deals with it anymore, many taking the position that we are facing a fundamental change, that electronic communication, by-passing the classical postal system, arrives daily in homes. Eventually the two will separate.

But what we do know is that mail art's first big chapter has ended. It looks back to an important past, but has by now become a museum item. Yet, among its deceased we can find Ray Johnson, Joseph Beuys, Ulises Carrión, Miklós Erdély, Slavko Matkovic...

It's as if a sentence on one of the also deceased Robert Rehfeldt's rubber stamps has come to pass: "Jezt ist immer und immer ist Vorbei" -- Now is always and always is Gone.

-- translated from Hungarian by Csaba Polony

Photo copy image by Igor Bartolec, Neoist Blood Cell,Yugoslavia. 1996.

Return to Left Curve no. 21 Table of Contents