On 7 May 1982, Ioan Bunuș sent to his friend, the Tîrgu Mureș-based artist Károly Elekes, a postcard with the text: “Let us make some artistic interventions on postcards!” What for Bunuș and Elekes seemed to be a “discovery” of mail art by incorporating it in their own practice would mark the start of a daily mail art correspondence between the two artists, planned to span over a year and to culminate at the year’s end in an exhibition where each of the addressees was to showcase the “mail art diary” he had received until then. The significance of this “artistic dialogue” was different within the practice of the two correspondents, and this text sets out to emphasize several of the features and drivers by which Ioan Bunuș’s daily exchange with Elekes integrated in his artistic and mail art practice.
Mail art was not a completely unknown territory for Ioan Bunuș in May 1982. The first international mail art “pieces” reached the artist, according to his own confession, in 1975, when he was a student at the Graphic Art Department of the “Ion Andreescu” Art Institute in Cluj. His mail was sent to him in Reghin, his native town. The causal relationships which led to Ioan Bunuș (a 2nd year student) being identified as a recipient by the American mail artists such as soldier Wally Darnell or the “futurist” Steffen O’Soreff have remained unknown. This information can only attest that Bunuș’s first contacts with certain channels of the international mail art network go back to the late 1970s, in the form of curiosity-filled exchanges with “another universe,” and are to increase later on, through the progressive expansion of the list of correspondents. His own confessions reveal that, in the early 1980s, the artist kept in contact by mail with reputed artists active on the international scene.
It was the specific functioning of the mail art network which significantly contributed to the creation of such connections. On the other hand, certain details in the artist’s biography point to the fact that, at least at micro-regional level, there were other types of relations too (also inter-human and operating in the same network-like fashion), which played a part in sustaining and boosting a genuine mechanism for the self-propagation of the mail art network. In the late 1970s, Ioan Bunuș settled in Oradea, where he had been assigned, after completing his studies, to occupy a position as a drawing teacher at the House of Pioneers. The geographical location of the city, in the immediate vicinity of the border with Hungary, enabled the artist to forge direct links with the artistic scene in the neighbouring country, whose language he spoke as mother tongue. The presence in Oradea of several Hungarian-speaking cultural players who had contacts with the Hungarian cultural milieu, and the frequent visits made in Oradea by cultural actors from Hungary facilitated the establishing of new connections, the circulation of Hungarian art and cultural publications, which not only enhanced a better acquaintance of the artistic scene beyond the border, but also opened for possibilities for one’s self-promotion over there, as Bunuș recalls. In 1980 he already “existed” as an artist in Budapest, as reproductions of his drawings were frequently published in Hungarian art magazines. By means of personal connections, Bunuș came into direct contact with Artpool Budapest and with other relevant actors on the alternative art scene in Hungary, contacts he did not establish by post, but by a visit to Budapest.
“Around 1979–1980 I lived in Oradea, and it was probably through Attila Ara Kovács, although I am not quite sure, that I received an invitation from Artpool Budapest to take part in the World Art Post projects (I have the catalogue, a black and white notebook with artist stamps, a special category, anti-official post institution). […] Miklós Erdély, András Böröcz, János Sugár, János Szirtes, and so on, all these names mean something to me. […] I was in Budapest in 1980, I was at home at El Kazovszky, at László Beke, who else, at Ernszt Múzeum (I forgot the name of the then museographer), I also met Róbert Szwierkiewicz, the critic and art historian Bálint Chikán. […] My drawings were published in Élet és irodalom, Mozgó Világ, Új Szimpózium, Párizsi Magyar Műhely, I was also well-known in Budapest, I may have been recommended by Attila Ara Kovács, I don’t remember exactly. […] Anyway, I received this invitation to World Art Post (artist stamps).”
Complying with such invitation, Bunuș integrated “officially” in the international mail art network (the Eastern Europe region), his participation to the World Art Post (among other projects) consolidating not only his “existence” as a mail-artist in the Artpool “records,” but also his presence as a “node” in the network. In my opinion, the expansion of his correspondence and the contacts he established with many protagonists of the international mail art network, with whom the artist had exchanges as early as 1980, were largely due to the Artpool moment, materialized in the World Art Post event in Budapest, as well as in his various mail art exchanges with György Galántai and in his contributions to other projects initiated by Galántai and Artpool. At the time when he wrote to Károly Elekes the postcard which was to trigger the daily mail art exchange, Ioan Bunuș had already established “postal-artistic” links with personalities from the international network of the genre. However, his connection to such network did not amount to his unconditionally embracing and integrally metabolizing in his own artistic practice the basic rules underlying mail art or the ideological trends which prevailed in certain channels of that network. The status of “professional artist,” as Bunuș seems to have understood it, was one that also testified to the existence of a different type of artistic practice, independent from mail art or which was not confined to it, and the identification of such a practice at his interlocutor was indicative (for him, at least) of certain invisible and undeclared hierarchies within the mail art network, which caused him to filter, to a certain extent, the heterogeneous material the “network” delivered to him.
“It must be said that mail art has had the same basic rules to this day, which are still valid, in my opinion, one of them being: ‘Mail art and money don’t mix’; and another one: ‘Documentation to all participants’; NO jury, NO participation fees; participation should be free, and the work should not be sent back. It basically involves adhering to these fundamental, almost communal, democratic principles which were developed by Ray Johnson in California. […] However, a lot depends on who creates the pieces: a Lambda person, a creative child, a physician, a sociologist of the liberal left, a salon anarchist who discovered his artistic talents overnight, a socialist drawing teacher in a remote corner of the world, a Frenchman frustrated that he does not have ‘time to do real art’ or even an artist-sender: let’s say Giuseppe Penone (I am not aware of his ever practising visual art). Who accepts the core principles, has money for stamps, does not fear the gallerist who might sell his works at a high price on the art market (there is this risk). […] For instance, Anna Banana reproached me that I did not understand ‘the deep meaning’ of mail art, around 1985. How could I not have understood it? What matters seems to be the mix, the levelling, the refusal of elitism, activism and the perpetuation of principles, the attack against culture, against the beautiful, against tradition, the principle that everything has the same value as its opposite, that we should make tabula rasa of the past, cultivate the confusion of values, as described by Orwell in his book, 1984, with the politically correct additions of the ultra-liberal left mundialism, regarding the mandatory themes. In the meantime, I had the same problem: How could I accept all this and go on with my art? […] As far as I am concerned, I have always kept North according to my own personal compass, my own ideas were expressed by circumventing the ideological clichés which abound in the infinite texture of mail art […], I did not find myself in the ideological, anarchist, punk, libertarian, fanatical, chaotic exaltations or in the ‘culture of death,’ nor in any others, much more radical and desperate, which have left their mark on the international mail art network based on the dictum ‘de gustibus… ’ ”.
While the present testimony of the artist summarizes to some extent his entire experience accumulated in the decades of interaction within the international mail art network, and not only that between the early 1970s and the early 1980s, when he communicated via mail art from Romania, it implicitly provides a number of relevant clues on the terms in which Bunuș carried out his practice as a mail artist in relation to that of (non-mail) artist. These clues can also be projected retrospectively, with respect to the period he spent in Oradea, when he came into contact with Artpool, or shortly afterwards, when he addressed to Károly Elekes, in Tîrgu Mureș, the innocent urge to intervene artistically on the postcards.
The artistic activity that Ioan Bunuș had carried out in Oradea had been extremely fertile and polysemous, its main vectors being represented by drawing, by the self-documentation and self-historicisation of his daily existence, as well as by the promotion of (incipient) forms of performative art. To a certain extent, a sum of all these concerns was transferred by Bunuș, in a summarised version adapted to the specificity of the genre, in his mail art practice or found in mail art its genuine follow-up. The drawing—understood as the medium for the sketch, and for the visual or intuitive processing of ideas, for the immediate, idiosyncratic transposition of concise, ephemeral observations or specifications—was the artistic genre around which Bunuș focused his entire activity and existence, and the genre that decanted these latter onto the realm of art.
In addition to his activity as a graphic artist, carried out in the late 1970s, the artist used to consistently document his daily life, his personal experiences and the events which made up his existence, from mundane to extraordinary, classifying the entire documentation in the form of archive-diaries or studio notebooks. Such a diary gathered, with the rigorousness of a calendar, small proofs of daily occurrences—such as train or tramway tickets, wine labels or other packaging of consumer products, clippings from newspapers or magazines or transcriptions of certain passages from his readings or from radio-TV shows, leaves of flowers picked during his trips in nature, entrance tickets to the swimming pool or to the cinema, fragments of ladies underwear, components of broken utensils, splinters resulted from engraving the woodcut blocks, samples of watercolours or inks and many more. The “diary-archive-calendar” brought together not only objects or their remains, but also photographs, verbal notes or graphic notations of various kinds—sketches, diagrams, observations—becoming an artistic medium in itself, one that melted in a natural continuum Bunuș’s life and art (life-as-art and art-as-life), visually filtered by certain aesthetic skills and sensitivities imbued by his training as a graphic artist. On 7 May 1982, when he exhorted Károly Elekes to start an artistic dialogue by post, Ioan Bunuș was both transferring and expanding a large part of his consistent self-documentation and self-historicisation activity within such dialogue: what used to be, until then, personal diary-calendars acquired, via mail art, both a form of pseudo-performartive display (in plain view of the postal network) of the self-documentation of his own daily existence and of its artistic working-out, and also an act of alienation of the resulting archive, since the archive was to be kept by his interlocutor. I assume that such a partial transfer of his personal archive to mail art had already taken place before communicating with Elekes, within the correspondence he kept with addressees in the international network, but I have not been able to document such mail art exchanges of the artist so far. In his dialogue with Elekes, following that first postcard, the fluency and accuracy of the self-documentation must have increased significantly both due to the daily pace of the exchanges, but in particular, due to the artists’ sharing of certain mutual reference points when it came to defining what could mean “new,” “experimental,” “alternative” and even “mail art,” within the specific context of the national art scene or within the boundaries of certain aesthetic requirements that both artists had internalised, owing to their training as graphic artists.
Beyond any other biographical aspects they shared—they came from the same county, they had been pupils of the Tîrgu Mureș Art High School, they had studied graphic design at the Art Institute in Cluj and so on—, what Bunuș and Elekes had in common was in particular their professional training as graphic artists, which they had put at the service of a mainly unconventional, experimental artistic practice guided by the desire to do something new, in as radical a manner as possible, in art. A novelty that was defined, though, in relation to the conservative habits of the local art scene: “We wanted to do something new, to ruminate what had been done until then. We wanted the new, yes, related to Oradea, to Romania, because that was where we lived.” Or, the degree of “novelty” of mail art in Romania was a different one, as Bunuș himself stated: “Because of the Iron Curtain, there weren’t many who were doing that sort of thing.”
The mail art exchange initiated by the two artists immediately assumed the format of a long-term project, and was to take place daily throughout a year, at the end of which they were to organise an exhaustive exhibition where each was to display the material received from his exchanging partner. As revealed by several sketches and ideas noted on the postcards circulating within this dialogue, Elekes had thought to exhibit all the mail art pieces received from Bunuș that year sewn together, in the form of a continuous surface: “a mail art lepedõ / the mail art sheet.” In his turn, Bunuș had imagined a “mail art / fence or panel?”: a fake wall or a spatial piece in the exhibition, as a support on which the correspondence pieces made by Elekes were to be placed. Each of the materials dispatched daily by the artists was precisely dated and, from a certain point on, appeared recurrently in their content the record of the days elapsed and of the remaining days, out of the total of 365 days assigned to the project. Among the pieces sent by Bunuș there were some which had been made by the children he himself had trained, as a drawing teacher at Casa Pionierilor și Șoimilor Patriei [The House of Pioneers and “Homeland Hawks”], in the Typo-graphical workshop; the title under which those works were featured was Days elapsed—Remaining days.
The themes on which the impassioned mail exchange centred, as far as Bunuș’s contributions were concerned, were spontaneous subjects dealing with the daily (artistic) existence: either he was organizing an exhibition, on the poster of which were to be featured some of Bunuș’s photographs, that showed him displaying his drawings by unfolding them with his hands, on the backdrop of a building whose plaster was peeling off; or he recorded the rise in the price of bus or swimming pool tickets; or he announced a new stamp that had been issued for the House of Pioneers (therefore for the artist); either there was circulated information about several addresses where mail art works could be sent to; or there were mentioned, without further comments, names of artists or of artistic trends or groups; or there was announced a recent theatre show that had been viewed; either there were put into circulation small graphic works or collages, usually accompanied by brief messages (“receive my alternative messages”); or there were sent messages with a practical content, of common use, (“send me 1–30 different stamp layouts, I can make them cheaply, of zinc”), and so on. All these mail pieces were pointedly graphic and aestheticizing in their visual quality: each sign, line, blemish, erasure, letter or word, image, postage stamp or rubber stamp (whether made by the artist or just appropriated) were exploited and composed laboriously aiming to arrive at a result centred on visuality, as dense and as enthralling as possible. Rubber stamps were frequently featured in artists’ works (many of them had indeed been made by Bunuș in Oradea, designed by himself or by Elekes). First there appeared stamps with their own names or initials, then stamps containing brief formulas bearing militant sounding in English: Mail Art Connection, Alternative Art Eastern Europe, Private, Free of Politics, Free Post, et al. The dialogue between the two took place in Hungarian—the mother tongue of both artists—, which demonstrates that the first postcard which opened the series of the “mail art diary” was written by Bunuș in Romanian as a notification addressed to the post workers, as well as to those who closely supervised the circulation of correspondence by mail. Károly Elekes’s archive keeps another image of the recto of a postcard, showing a gestural drawing by Bunuș, on which it is inscribed, in the same Romanian language: “Art is the refusal of explanations.” Most likely, this message supplemented and emphasized the previous notification, particularly targeting the “supervisors” of the postal network, whose existence was suspected or taken for granted by the artists. Through the postal circuit monitored by the political police, several of the mail art pieces sent by the two artists to each other were lost, never reached their destination, thus generating several irreplaceable voids in their rigorous daily diary.
Bunuș’s transferring (at least in part) of self-documentation and self-historicisation in the medium of mail art took on a special meaning within his daily correspondence with Elekes, unlike the mail art exchanges that the artist maintained with the international network. Although he never declared it as such, I believe their artistic dialogue contained a strong component related to “place,” to a certain spirit and cultural time of that place—whether it was identified with Romania or just with Transylvania or, on a wider scale, with Eastern Europe—and which not only inculcated a certain familiarity to his dialogue with Elekes, but also implied different priority criteria to the issues which the artistic practice deemed (or could deem) to be urgent acts of “renewal” in relation to the realities of its immediate circumstances. Károly Elekes was an artist, a graphic artist from the same generation, living at the same time and in the same space where Bunuș also lived. For Bunuș, the mail art exchange with Elekes was all a matter of art, as from one artist to another, free of any inhibitions which might have arisen from the requirement of “levelling,” implied by the original principles of mail art, understood as a doctrine, or free of any efforts to imagine what would a mixture between “money & art” imply. The “levelling” faced by the local culture was guided by other vectors and derived mainly from channels of the official propaganda, while art and money seldom mixed in the absence of an art market, for an artist unwilling to engage in making politically-engaged art.
The “artistic dialogue” that Bunuș had initiated with Elekes opened up a specific space where common values and landmarks could be shared, unlike his communications with the international mail art network and unlike the conservative customs which dominated the local visual art scene, a space where spontaneous communication between artists and their freedom of expression were (almost) maximal as long as they remained politically neutral, such being guaranteed by the uncanonised and non-canonisable status of the mail art genre. The realm of spontaneous and free creativity provided by the international mail art network had been the place whereby Bunuș had expanded his own production of personal history, which spread to the four corners of the world thanks to the network’s channels, in various archives and at various “keepers.” But the postal-artistic connection he had with Károly Elekes occupied a privileged position in Bunuș’s personal hierarchy, even after it had become evident that the common project of the Mail Art Diary could no longer be achieved.
At the beginning of September 1982, Ioan Bunuș left the country for good, a sudden, unpremeditated departure, to settle for a while as a political refugee in Federal Germany. Because of this departure, the Mail Art Diary project, in its planned format, came to a halt, even though Bunuș, while on the road, continued to send to Elekes brief messages, which were recorded in the archive of the former secret police agency (Securitate), from Budapest, and one week later, from Vienna. Once he arrived in the German Federal Republic, he suspended temporarily his communication with Elekes (most likely in order to protect the artist who had remained in Romania from any negative consequences which might have followed from keeping in touch with a defector), only to resume it later, especially after 1984, when Károly Elekes also emigrated, settling in Budapest. Even though he had renounced one of his favourite correspondents for a while, Bunuș continued to work on his own personal history production, and to update it from the perspective of his new status as a political asylum holder. For several years, starting from the end of 1982, he disseminated in the mail art network the postcards from the Asyl Art series: “Asyl Kuenstler zu sein ist ein Privileg, Bunuș, 1982.”
Notions such as self-historicisation and personal history, while accepted by the artist today as categories which most adequately describe his artistic and mail art practice in the 1970s–1980s, were not among Bunuș’s conceptual tools at the time. The term he used to describe his pursuits back then was “living art,” a term which involved both the undermining of the conventional acceptance of the “work of art” (by reducing it to a means for the rapid recording, via common materials, of personal daily experiences), and the renewed consolidation of the artist’s status as a legitimator and mediator of non-artistic subject matters towards the realm of art (art meant anything that was filtered and transposed into visuality through the skills of the professional artist). The term “living art” was also endowed with a pseudo-performative value that Bunuș had bestowed on his mail art practice—due to the rapidity with which he recorded his lived experience and sent it into the correspondence flow, the artist lived a direct communication which abolished the physical distances between himself and the receiving public, and stored his entire archive of the art-as-life and life-as-art.
Mădălina Brașoveanu is an art historian based in Oradea, Romania.