The Missing Post Office
The postal system has a mysterious air to it. Although we all send and receive post with regularity, the process that takes a mail from a post box or office to somebody’s door remains invisible and we don’t know when or if things will always get to where they are supposed to be. It is this ritual of posting that intrigued Japanese artist Saya Kubota when she came across an old post office in Awashima, a tiny island in Japan, around 4.5km offshore of the Western Kagawa Prefecture.
During the 15th and 16th centuries Awashima island was an important port for the Shiwaku Navy (a renowned group of sailors who controlled part of this area) and went on to become the site of the National Sailor School during the Meiji period. The school ran for 90 years before being closed in 1987 in a blow for the local economy. To combat the austerity that the school’s closure brought, the island joined with other nearby islands to promote itself as a contemporary arts destination, hosting the Setouchi Triennale in 2013 which is the very event that brought Kubota to the island.
The old post office on the island along with its devoted post master, Katsuhisa Nakata, who had dutifully delivered mail to the island’s inhabitants for 45 years, captivated Kubota and she began to develop the idea of the Missing Post Office project. This project was established in Awashima in for the Setouchi Triennale in 2013 and has now been brought to the UK for a limited run in 2016. The premise of the project is as follows;
‘Is there someone to whom you wish you could tell your thoughts,
even if you might never receive an answer?
At MISSING POST OFFICE UK, we receive and look after letters you
want to write but don’t know where to send.
The post office is a kind of a poste restante,
where letters are collected in a ‘Missing PO Box’
while awaiting delivery, someday, to an unknown destination.
Until then, the letters are left to drift,
floating in a liminal space under our custody.
We accept any letter, addressed to anyone or anything…
Letters from: The past, present, future…
Letters about: Objects, incidents, places….
Letters to: Strangers, old friends, lovers,
family, pets, imaginary or famous people….
We invite you to post a letter,
like a message in a bottle,
that will float on the sea of time.
A letter to anyone, anywhere, at any time, which might one day
arrive here with us, and be washed ashore to you as the reader.’ Missing Post Office UK 2016
Letters are posted to the Missing Post Office by various senders and collated at the post office where they are collected and made freely available for any visitor to read. In the ongoing Awashima installation, letters poured in with recipients including ‘the inventor of the hairdryer,’ ‘the reader, in 100 years from now, of the books that I’ve read,’ ‘myself at age 80,’ and ‘my mother and father in heaven’. This assortment packs quite the punch when presented together for all to see as they are in Awashima and will be (from January 19th 2016) at the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation in London until February 22nd.
The concept of sending out thoughts and questions without ever receiving a response seems therapeutic and a welcome respite from the rapid interchanges that pepper our daily lives. We spoke with the artist behind the project, Saya Kubota, and the project’s curator, Eiko Honda, to understand more about the idea and the impact they hope it will have.
How did this all begin, how did you arrive in Awashima and what led you to conceive of the concept?
Saya Kubota: The first time I visited Awashima in summer 2013, it was for research for my ongoing work-in-progress for the Setouchi Triennale.
The first thing that caught my eye when I stepped off the boat was the amount of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach, which astonished me. Plastic bottles, an ornamental dog, lamps which once belonged to ships, rusted empty cans, golf balls, rounded pieces of glass, and so on. I wondered – where could all of this possibly have come from?
Walking around the island, I came across an old post office right at the centre of it. Eventually, it was this place that was transformed into the Missing Post Office.
It wasn’t locked, and when I looked inside I could see many of the original post office facilities – the window counter, the post box, even the telephone switchboard room – all coated in dust. Thinking of all the things, people and events that had taken place here in the past, as I saw myself reflected in the glass I thought, “It’s as though I myself have drifted ashore to this place”.
The flotsam which had washed up on the beach, and all the post that had come to this place in the past, and finally the thought of I myself, who had come to visit this place by accident, became intermingled in my thoughts, and all of a sudden the name of the Missing Post Office came to my mind.
Shaped like a small airplane propeller, the island of Awashima was once three separate islands. Gradually, tidal flow built up sand which linked the islands together and it took on the form it has today. Shortly after leaving the island, I realized that creating the Missing Post Office there, and causing many different letters and visitors to gather and accumulate, was simply like another part of the same flow of events through which this island as it is today has become connected to so many different drifting objects.
When I began working on my residency at Awashima, I began to think about what it really means to ‘drift’. In order to gain a better understanding of this, I decided to drift in the sea for an hour each evening. For the first time in my life I put on a snorkel, and drifted afloat over the water. Fish were passing by in front of me; the waves from boats made the sand whirl up in drifts so that I couldn’t see the sea bottom. Sometimes there were a great many things down there; sometimes nothing seemed to have changed. Floating in my skirt, I could feel the delicate motions of the waves. At that moment I thought that surely, the reason human hair exists is to perceive such detailed hints of movement.
I had not decided the direction in which I would continue to float like this, and I wasn’t particularly trying to move – but having said that I also wasn’t fixed in place – so that in the beginning, it was a kind of uneasy and lonesome sensation.
I started to think about how we might never really know the location of anything, no matter where it is – in precisely the same way that I felt like my own location was unknown. At the same time, the day I stepped inside the post office for the very first time, I felt a very real sensation that I myself was just a part of one larger, greater current. Just as objects of flotsam and jetsam drift, so too do the postal items and I myself, as well as this whole island, even the stars – each and any one of them constantly moving – so that perhaps, nothing is truly fixed in place.
One day, on my way back from the sea, I realized that these Japanese words implying a sense of the “lonesome” or the idea of an “unknown location”, had their counterpoint in the English word “missing”. It was from that that I decided upon the English title, “MISSING POST OFFICE”.
What is it about the postal system that so fascinated you and when did this begin for you in your life?
Saya Kubota: In Japan in 1871, the postal system was brought over by Hisoka Maejima, and the postal system created by the Englishman Rowland Hill was introduced into the country. During the Meiji Restoration the “schools”, “railways” and “post” in Japan were compared to the “brain”, “veins” and “blood flow” of a human body, so we can say that the introduction of the postal system from England has played a very important role within Japan’s modernization.
As an artist, I am delighted that this Missing Post Office project has been made possible in England – in what might be called the birthplace of the modern postal system.
Nakata-san and I have had many arguments over these past two years. As a former Postmaster and an artist, the two of us have clashed countless times, and through that process we have gradually altered both the project and its form. Now, it feels like we are family working together on this family business, and I am truly grateful and happy that he has been able to support the Missing Post Office.
Eiko Honda: To me the postal system still represents a transportation system for our minds and objects that network our desire to be connected. The first time I became fascinated by it was when I was about eight – that was a pre-internet age – moving from one country to another because of my parents’ work I discovered AirMail as a way to stay in touch with friends. When you begin to take a moment to write to someone, all the sudden the space of mind you occupy multiplies from your singular present to that last time and space when you saw the person you are writing to, a fleeting scenery that reminds you of them or a future ‘sometimes’ you want to share. The fact that you could enclose something tactile was an exciting process too – like making a treasure box for someone else. Whether if it would arrive or if you’d receive a reply, to be able to have the occasion to convey your thoughts and post it to the vast sea of travelling mails to get to somewhere you can no longer get to yourself was a precious process in itself.
Eiko, how did you come to learn about the project?
I initially learnt about the MPO when I was involved in implementing a project at a former Sorting Office in London with a young artst-curator Leonie Buitenhuis last year. We were researching history of British postal service and examples of mail-related art works; I came across Saya’s project at this time. I wanted to approach the artist to see if she would be interested in expanding the project to UK – but knowing that she was in Japan, I thought I’d wait until I get the chance to meet her in person to learn more about her practice. A few months later Saya had moved to London for a 6 months’ residency with the City & Guilds Art School of London – we met at a gallery opening. By the following month we had already met so many times to converse, and decided to find a way to create the temporary UK branch of MPO.
Something which I noticed straight away about this project was how emotional it is. It seems to convey so much about the fragility of human existence and the passing of time. Was that something that you were/are aware of? What has the general response of visitors been?
Saya: The post which travels to and from there by hand, and the flotsam which comes and goes to Awashima by the power of nature, and, further, the mysterious power of – something – through which all of us come and go and encounter one another again and again on this island: all of these things make this place seem to me like a single water’s edge, onto which anyone and anything may be washed ashore.
Eiko: Yes, and it also conveys strength and abilities for us all to expand our imagination to something/someone we want to write to. Whilst some people write to the past, some people write to a completely imagined time and space (like the letter to the spaceship). It does carry sentimental note and that is one of the evident elements that draws people to the liminal space of MPO. At the same time, it also makes one aware of the countless matrix of time, space and memory all of us the humans take part by reading these letters that other people have written.
Could you describe the experience of working together on this project?
Saya: Through developing the project with Eiko, I began to see Missing Post Office, which I used to gaze at on my own, as a new project that has an even more deeper root to it. I think the project’s circulation and growth themselves remarkably and precisely sped up by deepening both of our insights and reflections through combination of Eiko’s points of view that derive from versatile narratives as a curator and my conception as an artist.
Eiko: In organising the UK branch of the MPO, we had numerous conversations between us on what it might mean to discuss this particular piece in the UK now. A postal service is familiar to almost anyone in the world, yet might evoke different narratives at particular time of history and cultural context. What would it mean to the people, for those who would write in the UK, or from elsewhere? We also discussed how this work ties into Saya’s broader practices that are predominantly object-based. She is a very open, thorough and intelligent artist who is receptive to the surrounding environment and culture she places herself. We are hoping to carry on our conversations within and beyond this project that would continue nurturing each others’ practices – she as an artist and I as a curator.
How would you like people across the world to interact with this project? What are your hopes and wishes for the future of this project?
Saya: I would be happy if it became a chance to essentially grasp how we who live the same era yet with different cultural background are similar and different, through running the Missing Post Office beyond the language boundaries. I would also like to think about new methods of perceiving and archiving memories.
For everyone who take part of the project, I would like them to hold imaginative time to reflect on precious things that they previously did not have the choice to reflect on.
Saya Kubota is an artist whose work revolves around memory and physical traces of the past. As of January 2016 she is the subject of a solo exhibition at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation of which the Missing Post Office UK installation is a part. She is a current artist in residence at the City & Guilds of London Art School and a PHD candidate at Tokyo University of the Arts.
Eiko Honda is an independent London based curator and the 2013-2016 Overseas Curatorial Fellow of Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London.