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This month I was able to exhibit an installation called Tender Missive in installation room 849 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Tender Missive was an interactive installation that involved over 450 diverse love letters from men throughout the century such as Edgar Allen Poe, John Keats, Richard Steele, Lord Nelson, Byron, Pierre Curie, Alexander Pope, King Solomon, Mozart, Ludwig Beethoven, King Henry the VIII, Benito Mussilini and even Adolph Hitler. The letters were written to the women that these famous (and infamous) men were romantically involved with, whether it was their wives, fiancees, or lovers. The letters are all historically accurate, but all presented in the same manner. Each has been printed in a different handwritten font on parchment paper and dipped in coffee to age the letter appropriately. The letters therefore all have a distinctive look, with no two being exactly alike. What is striking is the sweet vulnerability underneath the letters, even written by men who have committed horrific acts against humanity, in some cases even executing the women they wrote these love letters to. There is a realization that the feelings of love and affection are not only reserved for good people. There is also the question of the women involved with these men—was their romance worth the cost?
When the viewer walks into the installation room, the letters are seen covering the walls from floor to ceiling, layered on top of each other like dragon scales. On the far wall, a warm sepia toned pastel drawing of a forest covers the wall, drawn on white paper, and accented with gold leaf. The drawing has an antiquated feel, as if etched by Rembrandt or Durer. The gold serves to add a precious element to the drawing, and brings out the warmth in the letters on the walls. Also, depending on the lighting, the gold either shimmers to life or recedes into the drawing. The drawing serves as the symbolic presence of the feminine as a contrast to the masculine presence of the letters, and also brings to mind the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or other romantic forest setting where lovers might meet.
In the center of the room, an altar-like pedestal is set, with a pile of parchment paper and a glass ink bottle with a falcon feather resting inside. This is an invitation for visitors to pen their own love letter. The original instructions were for the visitors to write the love letter, tear it up, and place it underneath the drawing, where the residue of the chalk had darkened the floor. I had torn up a letter and placed it there to show visitors what I meant. However, of all the people who participated in the writing of the letters, none of the visitors tore up their letters. At the end of the installation, the pile of letters was whole and not torn. As one of my professors explained about the behavior, “No one wants to tear up love.”
As the viewer exits the installation, there are five letters placed on the bare far wall for them to closely examine. These were letters I found particularly thought provoking: from left to right, John Keats, Adolph Hitler, Benito Musselini, King Henry the VIII, and Lord Nelson.
The installation was lit by several warm spotlights that focused on the drawing and the letters, so as to create strong shadows beneath each letter. The effect was meant to be warm, theatrical and almost candlelit.
It took me a week of preparation before the installation room opened, but once it was opened there was a positive response. I once again found the interactive part of the installation very rewarding and fascinating. I love that people were moved enough to participate, and hopefully it provoked questions about our ideas of love and romance—its worth, its reality, its cost, and the importance of what the character of the person is you’re involved with, not just the romance of the relationship.
Tender Missive was open at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from November 23-27th, and is now closed.
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