Mysterious art of mailing the world

 

When a couple of artists decided to send a handwritten letter to everyone alive, they kicked off in Cushendall, Co Antrim, writes BELINDA MCKEON

ONE DAY LAST APRIL, the villagers of Cushendall, Co Antrim, went to their letterboxes, picked up the post and did a collective double-take. The residents of 2 Mill Street stared at a postcard inscribed with reminiscences about childhood breakfasts of Weetabix, and signed off with a cheerful “Hope you enjoyed breakfast this morning!” At Quarry House, a handwritten letter asked the recipients whether they’d ever wished on a shooting star, going on to consider a number of other wish-making scenarios and their statistical chances of success. At 1 Ardmoyle Park, they received a postcard bearing an image of Lake Kivu in Rwanda and a meditation on whether people take the question “How are you?” seriously any more. Elsewhere, a Cushendaller opened an envelope to find a yellowed 18th-century print of the Marquis of Caernarvon’s seat at Southgate. “This picture was in a frame I bought to frame a wedding present for my mother,” said a handwritten note affixed to the back of the print. “The man who sold it to me said it was worth something. I don’t need it. Would you like it?” And the note was signed, “with love, Lenka and Michael x”.

There were others, more than 460 others, in fact; every one of them different, every one handwritten, every one sent to specific people or a specific address. Every one signed in the same cheery way. And every one, in its own way, completely and beautifully bizarre. Vintage postcards from across the world and across the centuries; notepaper in all the colours of the rainbow; tiny, enclosed gifts of rubber bands and luggage tags and even a lock of hair (that went to a local hairdresser); anecdotes and memories and observations and questions unashamedly childish in their frankness and wonder. They all arrived on the same day, all written in the same two hands, and they set the village of Cushendall talking. What were these letters? Who were these people, “Lenka” and “Michael”? What did this mean? Were these threats? The work of unhinged minds? Belated April Fool’s jokes?

Although they didn’t know it at the time, the Cushendall villagers had, by receiving the letters, by reacting to them, and by discussing them, kicked off and become part of a large-scale work of art. Mysterious Lettersis a project devised by British artists Lenka Clayton and Michael Crowe, with the staggering aim of writing a personal note to everyone in the world. Not by e-mail. Not by chain letter. By hand.

“The handwritten aspect is vital for us,” says Clayton. “There’s something about the physicality of letters that’s interesting; the fact that you’re not only reading words but physically touching something that other hands have touched while they were writing to you.”

Not surprisingly, funding was hard to come by for a project of such debatable viability, but early last year the duo themselves received something interesting in the post. A 19th- century tower in Cushendall which, according to town records, was built “as a place of confinement for idlers and rioters” is now, in a stroke of delicious irony, owned by musician Bill Drummond, founder of the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front), and run as an artist’s residency. Come and stay in the tower, he told Clayton and Crowe, and hence their sea of letters found its first port.

THEY TURNED UP, says Crowe, with a bag of cards and stationery “collected over the years from various travels and friends”. They also arrived “with no names or addresses, and no idea what we would write to these people in 467 households”. To add to the mystery – and the difficulty – they preferred the villagers not to know the reason for their stay in the tower, nor for their treks around Cushendall as they tried to rustle up lists of names and addresses (eventually a postman pointed them towards the local sorting office, adding, “Don’t send anything to me, I get enough junk mail already”), or as they researched street layouts and photographed the houses to which they planned to send their letters.

“We were living in the most ostentatious place, this stone tower in the centre of the village that only housed outsiders,” says Crowe, “and trying to remain invisible. In case anyone asked what we were doing, we painted our fingers so that we could tell them we were watercolour painters.”

Why the artifice? Why the disguise? Because the core of the project resided, for Clayton and Crowe, not in sitting in Curfew Tower writing 50 letters a day, but in the comedy and confusion and connection which would happen as a consequence of those letters – after they’d been mailed, en masse, from Heathrow airport, after they’d arrived on 467 Cushendall mats, and after residents began to mention these missives to one another and realise the full extent of this thing. To let people know beforehand what was happening would have punctured the mystery of the work.

“The letters were fun to write, but they’ll never be as interesting as a chat which involves two people looking at each other, taking it in turns to speak, and listen, and laugh, and so on,” says Clayton. “We saw it as this huge piecing together of a sort of verbal jigsaw.”

Clayton and Crowe are a positive pair, and in their discussion of the project, as in their letters and postcards, their language is endlessly sunny. They compliment people on their houses and gardens (“your lovely window reminds me of Da Vinci’s Sketch of Mana bit”), offer assurances that life, if not yet “going swimmingly”, “will pick up soon, I’m sure!”, give effusive thanks to local police for the job they do, and send one couple an architectural recommendation for their new kitchen extension-in-progress. The letters, written through a form of automatic writing (“anything that occurred to us was considered appropriate”), ramble through hundreds of subjects.

“We had to position ourselves as though we already had a personal connection with the people, in order to establish one,” says Clayton. “We had to overlook the usual social conventions, and it was surprising how much of a connection, albeit fleeting and imaginary, it was possible to establish in a one-sided encounter.”

They mention only two negative experiences during their Cushendall stay, neither of which seem to have bothered them in the slightest: one local man stormed out and demanded to know why they were photographing his house (he was grimly content to hear that it was being sized up for a watercolour), and some local youths – “idlers and rioters” perhaps – threw stones at their tower window and tried to ram their door in (they later made an appearance as characters on some of Clayton and Crowe’s postcards.) In only one case did they let people know that their letters would be arriving – the residents of the local old folks’ home received prior notice, lest the influx of odd missives should prove frightening or confusing for them.

But didn’t they worry about frightening or confusing people in general? Didn’t it occur to them that in a village in Northern Ireland, a postcard suggesting that a house was being observed, for example, might have raised the hairs on the back of its reader’s neck in a less than positive way? Or that some of the images on the cards – a doll in a military coat, or an Essex war bunker, complete with body bags – might have unsettled their recipients?

“Of course the history of the Troubles was very palpably there,” says Crowe, “but we considered our project to be the absolute antithesis of any kind of violence, or even any kind of politics. So we didn’t think we had to tread patronisingly softly, softly. We work in a relaxed, happy atmosphere, and we hope that shows and translates; if we focused too much on fear, and constantly fretted about possible negative reaction, nothing would ever get done.”

CLAYTON AND CROWE were long gone from Cushendall by the time their letters arrived, and they had planned for that arrival to close the first stage of their project. But the BBC got wind of the curious deliveries and sent a reporter to record the reactions of local people. Those to whom the reporter spoke were, by and large, not impressed by the philosophical tone of the letters, by their oddball questions or their eager tone; locals shrugged and shook their heads, muttered that they’d never heard tell of a Lenka or a Michael.

“It’s a wee bit scary,” said a woman, described as a “local artist”, as she stood in a gift store surrounded by seascapes and pendants. “I wouldn’t connect it with art.”

“Art, but not as we know it,” said the newsreader as the reporter handed back to studio.

“It was a shock to be on the news,” says Clayton, “but the reactions were more interesting to us than disappointing. We knew that the report, although well-made and quite perfect in a way, really didn’t cover 1 per cent of what happened. Only the whole of Cushendall knows the response. And the response of that local artist is as interesting and wonderful to us as the person who made friends with four of their neighbours by discussing their letters.”

After Cushendall, Clayton and Crowe moved on to their second target zone, the neighbourhood of Polish Hill in the US city of Pittsburgh. There, says Crowe, “more people seem to be online”, so the artists are more aware of responses to the letters than was the case in Cushendall. Quite often, the responses have been spiky and irritated – one Pittsbugh man, who was not a resident of Polish Hill but had heard about the project, wrote to tell the pair they should be bombed by the IRA. But then there have been the recipients who have framed their letters and hung them on their walls. Recently, Clayton and Crowe have secured funding to continue with the project, so another town is on their horizon for 2010.

As for the plan of writing to everyone in the world, that may take a little longer to pull off. “But since we’ve started, we might as well see it through to the end,” says Crowe.

“For a time,” adds Clayton, “we get to be part of the world in a completely different way, and that feels exciting rather than daunting. And we only think, each time, about the place we’re writing to. Not the billions of people we’re not writing to.”

Many of Lenka Clayton and Michael Crowe’s letters to residents of Cushendall and Polish Hill, Pittsburgh, are available to view at mysteriousletters.blogspot.com