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Doreen Mende on making mail art in a surveillance state

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, “Cages on the run,” ca. 1980s.

Over at Art-Agenda, Doreen Mende has written about two mail art exhibitions at Chert in Berlin, “SIGNS FICTION: Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt” and “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America.” Looking at these co-mingling practices that range from the mid-70s to 1980s, this exhibition traces an underknown network of mail artists working under oppressive political conditions. While both Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and Robert Rehfeldt worked in East Berlin under the nose of the GDR, their pen-pal, the poet and artist Paulo Bruscky worked in Brazil amid that country’s authoritarian military dictatorship that lasted until 1985.

Mende writes:

Wolf-Rehfeldt’s practice emerges from her philosophical investigations into linguistics combined with her frustration at her position as an Office Manager in East Berlin. With artist Robert Rehfeldt (1931–1993), she lived and worked on Mendelstrasse in Berlin-Pankow. Over decades, their apartment became a refuge and a meeting place for intellectual and political friendships defined by a shared critique of and distance from the rules of socialist realism in the GDR. Rehfeldt was a key figure in the East German Mail Art scene, categorized by authorities as suspect because of its potential to spread “counter-revolutionary cynicism,” as Gerhard Bondzin, president of the Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR [Association of Visual Artists of the GDR] from 1970–74, wrote in an official report of the time.(2) However, Rehfeldt was not a dissident artist but rather challenged the official doctrine of the era with its own means of internationalism. On prints, postcards, and Fluxus-like graphics, he often wrote or stamped declarations such as “Artworker. Actual News,” “Art Time in Europa,” “postes cosmique,” or “Make a Creative World Now” to be sent around the world. The sender’s address often includes “Contart Bureau” on the envelopes, which reads as a self-branding strategy named after the neologism “Contart” from “contact” and “art”—to use the original English, the language spoken by the US, the class enemy of the GDR. In the context of isolated East Berlin under the GDR, all this inevitably declares the absolute dedication to art as a means of imagining a life in a world without walls and borders: a political statement. In other words, for Rehfeldt, the space of art is the only possible place for not getting involved with the ideology of fear of a monitoring power.

Around 1975, Rehfeldt began a long-term exchange with the Brazilian poet-artist Paulo Bruscky (b. 1949), who was also living through politically oppressive times. Bruscky confronted the military dictatorship with a kind of porous conceptualism that found its expression in various forms of poetry realized as process-related postal actions, urban performances, Xerox performances, and x-rays from his skull (he used medical materials, as he had a day job working in health administration), among extensive Mail Art activities. The exhibition “HOME ARCHIVES” presents a selection of works that Rehfeldt and Bruscky sent to each other, and which are now archived in each of the artists’ homes.

Read the full review here.