Bridport-based artist David Smith took on a massive project last year: #Letter365. Every day for a year David created a small original artwork that he then sealed into an envelope. Every day he posted or hand-delivered the letters to Bridport Arts Centre where they stayed, unopened.
The project culminated in the installation of all 365 letters in March 2015. The unopened letters were displayed in a repetitive grid – bringing these many small pieces into one large piece.
People could buy a letter unseen in advance of the exhibition, or during the exhibition. Only purchased works were opened. Those that were not purchased were destroyed on the last day of the exhibition.
Much of David’s work is about the interplay between chaos and control, emotion and the intellect. “In #Letter365 my aim is to convey the randomness of our experience within the apparent order of things. Chaotic elements will be obvious from the outset. Because the envelope and contents was handed over nearly every day to a third party for delivery – in most cases Royal Mail – there is no knowing what happened to it on the way to the Arts Centre. It could have got wet, folded, opened, stained, stamped.” – David Smith.
On the opening night only the works purchased in advance had been opened, so the grid was still largely intact. I had a strong sense of curiosity about what was in each envelope. It was so tantalising! Although each envelope had identical dimensions, the same couldn’t be said for the artwork within. On the opening day there were already a variety of different opened works – collages, paintings, drawings. My favourites were those on interesting materials, such as a painting on a Moleskine notebook foldout information sheet – which stretched over two times the width of the envelope, interrupting the order of the grid and extending into the space of a neighbouring column.
I returned to Bridport a few weeks later for the ceremonial destruction of unsold works. All the purchased pieces were now out of their envelopes and the careful order of the grid formation in total beautiful chaos.
All the unsold works had a red cross through them, and I became panicked that these would be destroyed. I wanted to save them. It was too late for me to buy an individual work, but David was accepting offers to buy entire months at a minimum of £250.
One buyer offered to buy two months but was only willing to pay £300. David insisted that he couldn’t go lower than £500. “Why?” asked the potential buyer, “You’re just going to destroy them anyway.”
David replied, “It’s art! Tearing them up is art!” The work has intrinsic value as a piece of art. The entire project is art, and this is what I love most about the entire concept. It’s more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t just an exhibition, this was a year-long performance piece, and the lucky buyers have purchased a fragment of that performance, a little bit of a larger narrative.
The potential buyer did go on to save an entire month. And then it was time to destroy the remainder. The process was really stressful – I was desperate to save them but financially unable. Reluctantly I agreed to assist with the tearing of the envelopes. It was all over alarmingly quickly.
There was something of Michael Landy’s Break Down in this destruction – in 2001 Landy catalogued all of his possessions and then systematically destroyed them in a public performance. The destruction of unsold works in #Letter365 is an important element to David’s core themes of chaos and control. The human mind baulks at the fact that everything is ephemeral – to witness the death or destruction of something is both distressing and exhilarating because life and death, creation and destruction are interdependent.
Yesterday David tweeted that three letters had managed to escape destruction (the layout of the grid made it difficult to spot a few of the unsold letters that were nestled near opened ones). I was offered the chance to save one. And that I did. I feel like I’ve just saved a puppy from being put into a sack and dumped in a river.
But I still don’t know what that puppy looks like. Will I like it? David has a handy section of the project website; Unhappy? “what happens if you have bought a piece of #Letter365 and on the opening night you see yours for the first time and you hate it? Well my first response is “Great!” Art should cause a reaction so that is a success to start with.”
This is one of my favourite things about this project. Art is meant to expand our minds, transport us away from our preconceptions and open us to new ideas. So with our aesthetic taste and choice removed, we are given the chance to own art that does exactly that. Most people don’t buy art they’re not already attuned to – which in some ways is a bit dull. If you’re a lover of art, you should be up for a challenge. What’s more interesting than owning a piece of art that challenges you?
The entire project has been a great success, and I was happy to be there at the start and end of the exhibition. Happier still: both members of Mount now own a little piece of history, a piece of art, a piece of a year.
Now it is time to frame them. How? Stay tuned for an article about framing a piece of #Letter365
#Letter365 exhibition ran from the 7th of March until the 11th of April at the Allsop Gallery, Bridport Arts Centre. David Smith is on twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidSmithArt #Letter365 has a website: http://letter365.co.uk/