Sunday, February 10, 2008

In the world of contemporary art, everybody only seems interested in talking about marketability, auctions and the rising price of paintings. Long cherished words such as “creativity” and “self-expression” have been replaced by the new catchphrase: “art = investment.” And yet there are still people who reject the dog-eat-dog attitude of most professional artists and emphasize instead the communicative, collaborative aspect of the artistic practice. I’m talking of course of the international mail art network that for almost 50 years has mostly flied under the radar of the art establishment. While in the art world everything seems to have a price, mail artists embrace trading and gift culture. And while the pompous rites of the art with a capital $ are consumed in ever bigger, cathedral-like museums, the mail artists are satisfied with much more modest, intimate spaces. Among them, one of the more peculiar and interesting “places” is the Museum of Temporary Art (MoTA) that you can find… in the living room of Benjamin and Debby Böhm in Tubingen, Germany.

“The idea for the museum was born by chance in 2000,” Benjamin explains, “when I found in a supermarket a 50 x 40 x 10 cm box with 33 small drawers that immediately reminded me of those Fluxus kits from the 60s, and decided to give it to Debby as a birthday present.” Debby suggested they may use it as a “guestbook” – visitors could take something from the box and replace it with something they carried on them. But that was only the first step: Benjamin’s other great love is Dada – the European group of anti-art terrorists who at the beginning of the 20th century turned many traditional artistic assumptions on their head – and their playful, iconoclastic attitude. So he proposed to turn it into a full-fledged museum, with a director (Debby), its logo, rubberstamps and other museum-related paraphernalia.

Then they decided to go global and started posting calls in the Internet, making this an ongoing project. As Benjamin explains, “anybody is invited to send us a contribution – by mail, of course. There are no juries and everything is accepted, in typical mail art fashion. The only condition is that the object cannot be bigger than 4 x 4 x 8 cm – otherwise it wouldn’t fit into the drawer. “Also,” adds Benjamin, “don’t forget to send along the exhibition sheet that everybody can download from the museum’s Web site, because the stories behind the objects are as important as the objects themselves.” The MoTA’s collection currently amounts to nearly 800 pieces (they are thinking of organizing a great retrospective exhibition when they reach 1000) and includes both traditional artworks and found objects that remind us of the infamous Marcel Duchamp’s “ready mades.” “Most of the contributions,” Debby points out, “are linked to a memory or a particular occurrence. This gives them a special value, and that is what we love about the whole project.”

The MoTA, of course, can house only 33 exhibits at a time (hence the term “temporary art”). This means that every time a new contribution arrives in the mail, the oldest one is replaced (on the Web site, you can always have a look at what currently is in the museum, together with all the descriptions). So what happens to all the pieces after they have had their 15 minutes of “fame”? Debby reassures us that “we don’t sell them but keep the whole lot in our archive.” Like most people who are active in the mail art network, they are not professional artists (Benjamin is a computer programmer; Debby works for a book publisher). They are into it only because they like it, and the MoTA can be considered a labor of love. They are always open to collaboration and welcome anybody, regardless of his or her artistic skill. To contribute to the project, you only have to send something (you can check out the Web site for inspiration) together with the exhibit sheet (please write in English or German) to the following address: Museum of Temporary Art, c/o Debby Böhm, Lange Gasse 25, 72070 Tübingen, Germany. In exchange you will receive a copy of your exhibit sheet and one of the object your contribution has replaced. Not only that, once every 100 exhibits, they send to all the participants a beautiful full-color catalogue (I just found one in my mail box). All this, of course, is for free, in the best mail art tradition. Have fun!

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