BERLIN ART WEEK: Postkarten aus Kunst
by Carmen Ansaldo
One of Berlin city’s most established and innovative interdisciplinary spaces decided to quiet the tone of Berlin Art Week with their official contribution to the festival, opting to exhibit their vast collection of mail art.
Arte Postale showcases the Akademie der Kunst’s collection of postcards, letters, collages and other small scale works on paper, dating from the start of the 60s until today. It may come as a surprise to some that the chic warehouse-cum-gallery space of the Akademie would commit to the development of such a low-fi collection in the first place, as the space has always prided itself on providing exposure to new and challenging artwork in cutting-edge mediums. However, this collection does a lot to provide context and perspective on the turbulent modern history of Berlin, whilst also maintaining contemporary relevance through the constant additions to the collection that the Akademie receives from contemporary artists around the globe.
Arte Postale includes over 700 works ranging from the more conventional interpretations of mail art – postcards and letters – to more interpretive entries such as posters, pamphlets, scrolls and collages. Some of the big names found within this massive collection include Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Daniel Spoerri, James Lee Byars, Andy Warhol, Emil Schumacher and Jonathan Messe. The exhibition demonstrates a dynamic duality between these historically contextualised works (mainly correspondence between artists and galleries during the GDR years) and newer works which are concerned less with the specificity of time and place.
Instead, they prioritise the material qualities of the posted medium, examining its unique ability to facilitate expression between individuals situated across borders and nations. These newer works are part of a separate project within the exhibition which includes over 330 participating artists from 38 countries. Each artist has responded to co-curators Klaus Staeck and Lutz Wohlrab’s request for small scale works to be sent to the Akademie addressing the movement of mail art generally and the Akademie as an institution more specifically. Titled Academy/Akademie, the project ranges from established artists to hobbyists and enthusiasts (Daniel Dellafiora and Radio Ozone being the Australian participants) and the diversity of interpretations on display is indicative of this range.
Historical and material implications aside, what does an exhibition of mail art in 2013 set out to achieve? The press release for Arte Postale declares that the exhibition, “… illustrates clearly the extent of the need of and the pleasure gained by analogue networking and ‘small format’ artistic activity — even today in the age of the internet.” For sure, the quality and commitment demonstrated by the Akademie’s collection presents a strong argument for the importance of mail art as a historical art movement, a success which is to the credit of curator Rosa von der Schulenburg. The exhibition’s affirmation of the ‘pleasure’ that is to be found in tactile medias and small format articles is evident in the care that has been taken to ensure the works are allocated adequate space and lighting. (Most works are installed in a museum-like set of table-top glass cases.) However, what is not apparent is Arte Postale’s ambition to affirm the current ‘need’ for mail art, if we can say that such an ambition could be fulfilled in the first place. Although the project of Academy/Akademie ensures that the collection will remain a work in progress into the foreseeable future, the mail art on display clearly functions as a gesture of homage to an art historical movement well past its prime. It does not, and possibly cannot, provide a continued sense of mail art’s original urgency and importance within the new context of contemporary art today. This is particularly the case when it is presented to the viewer more as an artifact than as a counterpart of the technological mediums of choice that now define the contemporary arts.
Read as an act of homage, of historic documentation, and a testimony of the ability for personal narratives to stretch over international boarders, Arte Postale is a powerful and unavoidably heartwarming affair. The involvement of new artists exhibiting alongside the correspondence between modernist artists creates a sort of call-and-response from future to past that is both meaningful and delightful. However, the original urgency and purpose of the movement was not able to be sustained in the contemporary examples of mail art on display. For this reason, the gesture of Arte Postale becomes a nostalgic and sentimental one. Although it does not fulfill every purpose ascribed to it by its curator, an exhibition which provides you with such an experience surely cannot be considered an unsuccessful one.