Boxes, or more rarely – covers of photograph albums, lamp shades, flower vases, cigarette cases... made of picture postcards only, or of picture postcards combined with photographs – most often black-and-white ones, occasionally with newspaper clippings, date from the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The focus is on a specific type of objects created in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), even though similar objects can be found in the surrounding states and in those located further away.
Those are unique, handmade objects. They were made by soldiers, hospital patients, prisoners, and also by ordinary people, as a hobby. Specific information about these objects can rarely be found, although one can find information such as the following on the Internet: “Such boxes were made by girls and women in the Croatian region of Zagorje and on the outskirts of Zagreb, specifically, in the Vrapce district.” Still, most often they were created through some kind of useful activity – in the former Yugoslavia, the phrase used to designate this kind of activity was “socially useful work” – in closed-type institutions, in the course of doing one’s national service (in the former SFRY – in the Yugoslav People’s Army JNA), in prisons, then as a form of therapy in isolation, in hospitals, most often in those where patients were treated for tuberculosis. It is on account of this that the protective see-through cover which envelopes these picture postcards and photographs, though not all the boxes, originates from x-ray print sheets, originally used to x-ray lungs, scrubbed clean and polished to the point of being transparent, so that lungs can no longer be seen, and then cut and tailored for a particular format. The writer Haruki Murakami explains the purpose of similar rehabilitative activities in his book IQ84 in the following manner: “They did not aim for ‘recovery’. Their purpose, rather, was to slow the advance of the disease as much as possible, or just to kill time.”
Selecting, combining, tailoring, then piercing and sewing picture postcards and/or photographs with thread, and decorating objects with ribbons at the seams-edges, adding decorative balls, mostly on top, on the lid of a box, those are manual activities used for the creation of these patchwork objects. Depending on their maker’s imagination and creativity, these boxes vary in size, form and the quality of technical realisation. They range from simple ones, rectangular in shape, to very complicated ones, wavy and sculptural objects. Successful pieces, miniature as they are, contain the potential of monumentality.
What is more interesting is their purpose and the intention behind them, the wish to communicate and to impart something through these three-dimensional visual collages. The material comes from the personal archive of the box maker. Most often, those are picture postcards received, for example, by a soldier, to which was added, for example, a postcard of the place where he did his national service, a personal photograph and/or a photograph of the person for whom the box, photo album or lamp shade was intended. Sometimes one can find a handwritten date and/or dedication. Recycling memorabilia into something that is reminiscent of an encoded three-dimensional diary, a gift for someone who is absent and of whom one thinks while being apart from him/her, was done for the purpose of reminiscing and substituting for the one making them and giving them away. Recycling extended the lease of life of those picture postcards and photographs, and added to their meaning and significance through their newly created purpose.
Each box, each object, is like a page torn out of a diary whose “writer” it is not possible to identify, nor is it possible to reconstruct his/her entire life on the basis of fragmentary visual data, even though those boxes contain elements of a hagiography. Those boxes are, first of all, souvenirs of memories, intended for the preservation of mementoes such as letters, picture postcards, photographs or jewellery.
The visual message created from a personal register of pictures, stringed together based on some subjective criterion, meaning and purpose of its maker, may give the impression that the pictures were combined at random. The stereotyped pictures that predominate on and in the boxes include: tourist-type picture postcards of cities and towns (for the most part, from the ex-SFRY), monuments, historical events of importance, historical figures, couples, famous (mostly Hollywood) actresses from the period in question, flowers, children... The mixture of personal and general content constitutes a document about the past in the nature of archaeological findings. It suggests contents of a sociological, anthropological and political nature. Collective memory surpasses personal intentions and details.
These pieces that are in the process of disappearing are rarely found. For the most part, they are found in flea markets, sometimes in second-hand shops, very rarely through the Internet, and they come well preserved or damaged. Preserved from deterioration, taken out of their original context, possessing certain kitsch characteristics, when placed inside an artistic context, these found objects (objects trouvés) are exhibited either as they are – ready-made objects, or processed by means of other media in the form of prints, blow up objects, videos, installations...
INBOX constitutes a continuation of my previous works PHOTO FONT and THE SMS ARCHIVES. Works based on boxes made of picture postcards invoke memories of boxes from art history found in the opuses of Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Walter de Maria...
As a symbol, the box refers to a secret, to protecting something precious and a potential danger of opening it. Associations connected with the box as an object point to: a ballot box, a black box, a first-aid-kit box, a music box, Pandora’s box...
The title – INBOX, apart from pertaining to the inside of the actual object – the box, is also a reference to the “postal box” of electronic mail and SMS in cellular phones. In this way, through objects from the past, we speak about the present. These specific visual objects – collages, even though they are old, can be brought into connection with contemporary digital communication media, as their real and metaphorical precursors. Picture postcards – picture plus text – function as a precursor of instant photography, video and fast messages, whereas a photograph – a portrait of the one who made the box, functions as a precursor of the so-called “selfies”.
Elements of communication in collaged messages, old and new alike, contain similar linguistic characteristics, even though the manner of communication has changed rather drastically over the course of just a few decades, namely, from handwritten letters and picture postcards, which always arrive belatedly, to the electronic, digital communication of here and now. From the former focusing on the message and (one) recipient, to drawing attention to oneself, as tends to happen today, through an often euphoric, almost exhibitionistic self-promotion across social networks. The overcrowded social networks show the symptoms and ailments of society, rather than enabling users to discern and exchange information as such. In this sense, it is quite logical that a phenomenon such as Snapchat should occur, which automatically erases the content of a chat after a few seconds.
A case of voluntary and/or necessary amnesia?
Through their language and means of expression, artists select, process and remind. That is the story of life, passage of time, the personal through the universal, in Jonas Mekas’s film collage As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. I find the kind of sentiment and romanticism recognised in that film in these objects trouvés, made by the hands of a small, ordinary man, unpretentious when it comes to producing meaning, to whom art is an unknown quantity and kitsch feels like home. But that was a man who managed to leave a trace of the time and man on the verge of disappearing, readable from today’s register of visual and media communication.
Through a transformed and decontextualised use of these objects, signs of various times present themselves and connect.
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”
T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets
Translator: Novica Petrovic