Most of us write several e-mails every day. They are probably related to work, and we can assume that in this age of Skype, Facebook and Whatsapp, love letters are written very seldom. And today, although there are many other factors other than the status of our relationship that define our identity, romantic relations continue to be important.
In his book A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes says that the main message of a love letter is simple: “I am thinking of you”. He also adds that this actually means the opposite – I am forgetting “you”. And the letter writing is an attempt to reawaken from this forgetfulness and I am writing to recreate “you” in my imagination.
The title of this exhibition – All Letters Are Love Letters – is derived from I Love Dick, an autobiographical novel written by Chris Kraus, an American writer and filmmaker, published in 1997. The book is comprised of letters that Kraus, and initially her husband cultural theoretician Sylvère Lotringer, write to the latter’s colleague named Dick. Although Chris meets Dick on a few occasions and spends the night with him, it is clear that the man is not interested in her. But Chris does not stop writing. Having previously dealt mostly with supporting her husband’s career and making a few unsuccessful experimental films, it is writing that helps her finds her “voice”. The result is an innovative format in which autobiographical and essayist literature cross, and in which, various topics such as feminism, avant-garde art, schizophrenia, anorexia, etc. are effortlessly dealt with.
Kraus’s book represents a new approach to romantic literature. Not only due to its experimental form, but also because, as the novel develops, the frustration caused by the unrequited love becomes self-reflective literature. In psychoanalytical theory this phenomenon is called sublimation – the channelling of libido energy into social beneficial activity.
Although when reading the book, Chris’s despair over her unrequited love is palpable, she does not heroicise the suffering. In Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), one of the masterpieces of romantic literature, the lovesick main character plays the leading role, but the unrequited love ends in a dead end – when the main character Werther realises that is impossible for him to win Charlotte’s heart, he shoots himself.
Sociologist Eva Illouz states that in the 20th century romantic relationships have been affected most by the individualisation of lifestyles and the formation of an emotional self-image that is focused on feelings and controlling them. She points out that capitalism has created a very specific emotional culture, which is characterised by the utilisation of psychological terms in both corporate structures and personal life. Illouz also speaks about other significant changes during the last hundred years, which include the expansion of “marriage markets” and the seemingly unrestricted and free choice of partners. However, does the free movement of goods and libido make us happy? The paradox of the situation is that the number of single people today is greater than ever before and this group includes both those who are looking for partners, as well as those who do not even want to tie themselves to anyone.
Chris reflects at length about society and her position as an artist and woman, but there is one aspect that separates her from the contemporary discourse on love – her reaction to Dick’s rejection. If in the era of knights, unrequited love was considered to be an experience that broadened people and their emotional lives, requited love or the lack thereof is now related to a person’s self-esteem. Today’s self-help books call the kind of infatuation that we see in Chris’s case toxic and recommend that people get on with their life or seek professional help. However, every letter is a love letter and Chris is not ashamed of being rebuffed, and instead uses it as an opportunity for self-expression and continues to write the letters, although the romantic feelings therein increasingly decline.
In this exhibition, my goal is to present works that approach the theme of love from different aspects. Although I am an artist, at one point, when viewing my colleagues’ work, I found myself compiling an exhibition, thinking about which works could provide interesting visual and substantive meaning if exhibited together. From there, it was just a question of organisation. In the exhibition, I view love and its expression through architecture, advertising, fine art, literature, film art, music, economics and politics. Ten artists from Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Singapore and Estonia are participating in the exhibition. Here, the concept of “love letters” functions as more of a metaphor symbolising various approaches and communicative acts.
Roland Barthes recognised that a lover’s discourse now consists of extreme loneliness. He stated pessimistically that the lover’s discourse is ignored, disparaged and mocked, and the lover forsaken, not only by the authorities, but also by the mechanisms at the disposal of the authorities (sciences, technology, art).
However, the philosopher Alain Badiou has said that love is an existential project: the opportunity to see the world from a different viewpoint, instead of focusing only on staying alive or reinforcing one’s identity. I think the same also applies to art.
P.S. Don’t you think that everyone should write at least one love letter in their lives?
The artists participating in the exhibition include: Gerard Byrne (IE), Heman Chong (SG), Hamza Halloubi (BE), Egon van Herreweghe (BE), Minna Hint (EE), Erika Hock (DE), Johnson & Johnson (EE), Anu Põder (EE), Meggy Rustamova (BE), and Anna-Stina Treumund (EE)
Duration: 2016 01 22 – 2016 03 06
Meggy Rustamova, A Lover’s Discourse: Intimate Fragments, 2016 (excerpt), sound piece, 10 min, loop
Photography: Paul Kuimet