Penpals; Post-conversation is an experimental collaboration between Melbourne and Hong Kong based artists from the RMIT Master of Fine Arts. As pen-pals, each pair of artists collaborated to form the conceptual underpinning of a work through handwritten correspondence. Through cross-cultural dialogue, Penpals; Post-conversation explored systems of interpretation through language, location, individual and collaborative art practice.
Aliça Bryson-Haynes / April Challis Claire Robertson / Margaret Wong Shae Rooke / Daphne Ho Lizzy Sampson / Gloria Yip
An exhibition of artworks and letters was held at the RMIT School of Art Gallery, June 19 - 29, 2012. Penpals was developed and initiated by In The Meantime with support from RMIT staff and RMIT Link Arts & Culture.
Penpals: Post-conversation is an experimental, artistic collaboration, through hand-written correspondence by a group of Master of Fine Art students from the School of Art working from the twin locations of Melbourne and Hong Kong. Whilst they study the same program, they work in two quite distinct, cultural and geographic locations. Similarities and differences abound. As penpals, each pair of artists has sought to construct work, which both navigates and interprets this long distance relationship.
Prior to the ubiquitous use of email, social media sites and cheap travel, having a penpal was one of the few ways one might get a personal glimpse of a life lived somewhere entirely different from the place one normally called "home". It was a way to become familiar with the unfamiliar and perhaps also learn a foreign language or establish a friendship. Often it led to travel and precipitated major changes in people's lives. One such notable example is the renowned artist Yayoi Kusama. In the 1950's Kusama was writing and sending drawings to her penpal, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe in America. The relationship they forged is largely credited with providing the encouragement for Kusama to leave her native Japan and move to New York City in 1957, after which she became a leader of New York's avantgarde movement and rose to international fame.
Scottish-born Australian artist Peter Hill worked as a "mail artist" for many years during the 1980's. These postal projects revolved mainly around issues such as Nuclear Disarmament, Ecology and Gender issues as well as "open projects" which might cover anything from painting to conceptualism. They were very much like "penpal" letters in that they united artists on different continents and forged life-long friendships and collaborations. Usually these projects worked on the idea of "no rejections, no returns" and the work was eventually gifted to a local university, art school or hospital. Very often a poster was produced after the event and on the back of it would be listed the names and addresses of all the participating artists from Berlin to Hong Kong. Suddenly you had penpals all over the planet. Hill also told me "When I was in my final year at art school near London I decided to write my exegesis on three contemporary artists. I thought I'd better write to ten artists around the world in the hope of getting three positive replies to my letters. To my surprise and delight seven of the artists replied with catalogues, slides and CVs. The art world is a very collegial place." Today social media has very much taken the place of pen- pal letters sent from a post-office. However, Hill told me "Although I have a web-site and use Facebook and email, I still get a thrill from placing a physical envelope into a postbox in Australia and knowing it will turn up inside someone's house in Shanghai, Glasgow or Paris a few days later. That is the joy of being, or having a pen-pal."
Penpals: Post-conversation continues this well established human desire to transcend the limitations of the familiar world and forge new connections limited only by the imagination and the simple act of writing a letter.
Associate Professor Kevin White Deputy Head of International Development
FROM THE ARTISTS
We are largely a group of artists from the generation who grew up writing letters to penpals whom we never met, nor needed to. We made friends in faraway places: Finland, America, France and Hong Kong. We learnt about the world from the perspective of children overseas. Fast forward twenty-odd years and collaboration through letter writing presented continual surprises and challenges. The very proposition of avoiding email as a form of communication was met with apprehension and this hesitation proved to be well founded, as emails crept in between the sending and receiving of postal letters. Other parameters for the project, such as a weight restriction of 500grams for final artworks and the number of letters exchanged, were also stretched to the limit.
Despite these constraints, the artists in this project have succeeded in establishing relationships with each other across oceans and borders. These handwritten letters have been carried, re-read, shared and studied, and concepts of growth, space, time and wonder have been discussed back and forth in considered responses over the past six months. We are excited to present our shared concepts and artworks in this exhibition and look forward to continuing the relationships and dialogues we have developed into the future.