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The 'Love Letter' by Barbara Campbell

Photographed by Claire Hu

Friday 5th May, the 2017 Love Letter: Be With You has opened for the 3rd time, this year at the 541 Art Space.

Opening nights are always exceptionally interesting, a lot of congratulations, meeting new people and conversations. It is a night which I hope the people who come have a good time and that everything goes smoothly. As for me, I am always a little stressed out until after the opening speech.

A lot of, 'Congratulations! Stress is over?' With me replying, 'Thank you! Not yet, not until after the speech.' At the same time I was thinking, what should I be holding in my hands during the speech? Should I have a little to drink? Ah my feet is starting to hurt, damn heels. Someone nodded at me, I nod back. Someone else waved at me, I wave back and smile.

I've been to many openings, had many myself as an artist. However, there's always a different sort of stress at an opening when I'm the curator. It makes me a little anxious, but in a good way. Those 3 hours went by in moments, and it was all consuming that I was unable to pay attention to the small details that I general pick at.

We opened the show at 6pm, the speech at 7pm. Why? Because by then people would have all had a little to drink, chilled out a little. Hoping that it makes it easier for my speaker and I to speak, mostly me I guess.

Gathered the noisy crowd, stopped the bar from serving drinks, quieten them down. I started to say, 'Hi hi hi hello hello everyone!' Then you'll hear a lot of 'Shhhh..' in the background, and quiet. That is generally the moment when my head goes blank, and in my head I'm telling myself, your speech, your lines, say them, people are waiting. That was when I hear my own voice again, words coming out and the sentences I've prepared appearing in my head.

I was making my speech and thoughts were streaming through my head - being a woman I was also particularly good at multi-tasking. Remember to thank all the right people. "...I will also like to thank my team..." Oh and sponsors "...thank you to all our sponsors for supporting us..."

I go on for a little bit more, "....Most importantly I will like to thank all of you standing here tonight. The Love Letter was never about one person, or one artist, it is about everyone. We do our best to give everyone a show every year, but at the end of the day it is the audiences who completes it..." Just a little bit more and introduce Barbara. Breath. "...and now I will like to introduce you to a lovely friend of mine, Barbara Campbell...Thank you! Thank you Barbara!" Step back, make room, oh feet hurts!

Enough with my nonsense, the highlight of this post is Barbara's beautiful speech she made that night. Read on to find out what she has said on our opening night that has touched my heart dearly.

Photographed by the 541 Art Space

This year we had the honour to invite guest speaker Barbara Campbell to open the show for us. She made a astounding speech that expressed the idea of the Love Letter so well. Thank you so much for her thoughtfulness and I will like to express my sincere gratitude for her beautiful words.

"It would be hard to talk of Love Letters without mentioning that famous poet, satirist and letter-writer of the French 17th Century, Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano was a historical figure but we know him better not through a collection of biographical details but through the play bearing his name by Edmond Rostand and its various translations and interpretations for stage and screen. Cyrano, the character who is contained within all these dramatisations is fascinating: not only for what he said but because of the kind of transformations he enabled. The medium of his art was ink on paper formed into words. In the play, these words are then voiced not by Cyrano but by another character, Christian, which enabled his love for Roxane to be expressed, reciprocated and requited. Christian was transformed through Cyrano’s words. Cyrano, meanwhile, was also in love with Roxane, but was restricted from embodying it directly because of the self-hatred he developed for his own misshapen form, his famously large nose. As we know, it ends tragically for all the characters but not before sweet forms have come into being, have been directed at their love targets and have been shared with audiences.

What has this to do with the Love Letters rendered by the artists in this exhibition? Firstly, we approach all these individual expressions through the curator Yves Lee. Yves’ first provocation to us is to consider these objects not as mutely independent of context but as vehicles for conveying feelings and meanings between persons. They are in this sense not discrete, but relational objects - they enable relationships to be formed in several ways. As Yves has said in her curatorial notes, she “fell in love with a group of people, her cohort”. Her curatorial process is a form of love letter writing to this cohort. More than that, Love Letter is a project that extends beyond a single exhibition. Yves commits beyond the “one night stand”, if you like, by conceiving of a series of annual exhibitions. This year she will extend the project into Hong Kong.

Coincidentally, it is to Asia that we find another understanding of the love letter as it’s expressed here. I was listening to a conversation on the radio recently between the ABC presenter, Joe Gelonesi, and the American scholar in Comparative Religions, Roger T Ames. Ames is particularly interested in how personhood is constituted in the Confucian world. Ames contrasts the individualism of the West with the relationalism of the Confucian tradition. He says: “Association is a fact. Everything we see and do is a collaboration with our environments”. He goes on to explain that this includes the human and other-than-human worlds.

Furthermore, everything is transactional by way of the roles we adopt from moment to moment: a good mother, an honest broker, a wise teacher, for instance. So, roles – the way we form relationships - come to constitute us. In Confucianism, the primary roles that form us ethically are based in the family. We are born into these roles. The example Ames gives: “you learn to love by being loved”. Beyond the family, are the roles we choose to form with others. With our friends, we can be critical and demanding. These people will make us and it’s a process of mutual making. “People make each other” says Ames. And this is how relationships becomes intrinsic. It’s the difference between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal. Ames calls this Confucian principle the “relationally constituted concept of personhood”.

I think Yves understands this principle implicitly. She is embodying the role of the loving curator and doing it without that being a patronising (soft) power trip. That’s because she understands the relationships to be mutually constituting. The artists in their role can be critical and demanding (of themselves, of fellow artists, of their curator) as Yves can be critical and demanding in her role as curator.

I haven’t yet spoken about the works in this exhibition and I don’t want do that by addressing individual pieces. I want to return to the idea of the letter and its transformative qualities. For what are any of these works around us but transformations of thought into form through the use of matter and process? Not ink on paper, but fired clay, moulded glass, light on lens, and so on. Just as the quill is an extension of the hand, so the hand has formed a somatic contact with the tools and materials of the artists’ choosings. We find the Confucian principle at work here too. In their “role” as artists, they collaborate with the human and other-than-human materials of their environments. And through these relationships, something is made. And not just some-“thing”. I guarantee if you ask any of the artists showing here, they will have experienced moments when it’s not that they are directing their materials and processes so much as they are being directed themselves by the materials and processes. Here is that process of mutual-making now taken further- that is, beyond only-the-human. This is what Daoism added to Confucianism. There’s a Western arty word for this too – the intra-agential but I won’t go into that. What it means is that the artists in this show are being constituted as artists from two directions: through their intrapersonal relationships with Yves and each other and through their intra-agential relationships with the materials and processes they use. They are being constituted as artists by the quality of these engagements.

So to wrap up (I know you’ll want to refresh your relationships with your friends and wine), “Letter” is not a word we would give to other forms of art but there’s a lot of provocative value in doing so. “Love” is not a word we associate with curating. (Respect, admiration, aesthetic appreciation yes, but love? No). So, I want to congratulate Yves on that achievement alone. Bringing love into the curatorial lexicon just might make us all better audiences and people.

Would you please join me in congratulating Yves and all the artists in this show with a toast: “Long Live Love Letter.”"

- Barbara Campbell

Photographed by the 541 Art Space

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