For the last three decades, Batia Shani
has created thousands of envelopes by way of sewing, embroidery, painting, and collage. Every envelope Shani created was sent to a destination somewhere in the world before ultimately being returned to the sender. In Signed and Sealed, this vast collection of envelopes becomes the artists ready-made the raw material from which she creates her installations: the knitted dress, the floating veil, and the cardboard columns. Shanis medium, the returned envelope, is charged with meaning: while they are invested with the artists care, they are also sealed and empty. For Shani, they symbolize human connection, both lost and found. The possibility of playfulness, imagination, and escapism is encoded in the envelopes alongside absence, longing, and loss.
Signed & Sealed presents for the first time almost the entire collection of envelopes she collected over the decades. It features three main installations: envelopes hovering in a circle around a white veil; envelopes sheathed around six columns, confronting the visitor at the entrance; and finally, embroidered envelopes knitted together into a dress. In parallel with her other artistic practices which include embroidery, painting, and multimedia textile collages Shani has sustained her envelope project, carving out a special place for it. At any given moment, since Shani started almost 30 years and still now, the artists envelopes are in transit around the world; crossing oceans and continents on their way to existing and imaginary destinations and back again. As new envelopes come in every day, the artists collection continues to expand.
Shani began her work with envelopes in the late 80s, when she moved to London with her family. Far from home, feeling loneliness and longing, Shani ignited her passion for letter writing. In her yearning for connection, Shani saw beyond the writing itself as a tool for communication, seeing the potential of the vehicle the envelope as her canvas. Though not deliberately, Shani joined in the tradition of the conceptual Mail Art Movement of the 1960s. Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Ray Johnson, and their contemporaries sent postcards, poems, or drawings by mail instead of selling or exhibiting them through conventional platforms.
Shani has transformed her ever-growing collection of envelopes into handmade works of art through various techniques: collage, embroidery, sewing, illustration, text, among others. One question underlies this project: will the envelopes survive? Will they be treated with care, arriving at their destination and then back to Shani in one piece? Shanis creations expose the envelope: turning it inside out, from the protective wrapping of messages to the actual vehicle for messages. The many hands that the envelopes passed through on their journey, and the marks they left, allowed Shani to have an abstract dialogue with mailmen:
By observing the depth of the engraving of the pen upon the envelope, I could assume the dissatisfaction of mailman x compared to mailman y, said Shani. The wrinkled, stamped, marked and worn out envelopes indicate the obstacles they faced, who knew how much they suffered on the way back to their home port.
Shanis envelope creations, amassed into a huge collection over the years, contain profound layers of meaning: they express a story of love and plenitude as well as a compensation for loss. The sound of stamping has a particular personal resonance for the artist, who grew up living above a post office in Bat Galim. It was the soundtrack to her life as a young girl, one that she has revisited and embraced in adulthood:
I think about my childhood and my family, how our connection with the outside world and our relatives in exile was all through exchanging letters. Being from a family that didnt own old albums of family portraits (everything got lost in that one war), the longing for these things led me to the idea of building an inventory even if it was new, with no connection to my roots. A collection that is all mine, and meant for me.
The Dress of Pain
Shani came to her art studies after a long career as a social worker, specializing in the rehabilitation and care of bereaved families. In recent years, a preoccupation with pain, domestic violence, and violence against women have been central themes in her work. Some of her envelope series also reference these topics in direct and indirect ways, with the goal of raising awareness through what Shani calls the postal distribution chain. The Dress of Fear, presented in this exhibition, broaches these topics in a new way: dozens of the envelopes were hurt or pierced by a needle in order to be knitted together to create the dress. The action of knitting with envelopes requires that each and every envelope be stitched to the other by needle and thread, together the ensemble of envelopes form a dress a new kind of envelope.
Six tall columns greet visitors at the entrance: the envelopes which cover them are displayed in a jumble, unrelated to the series they were originally a part of. Several of the tall and heavy columns were taken from the corner of the street where the studio is located, and have been placed as architectural columns in the entrance of the exhibition, creating an organized and centered view circle.
An installation that is composed of a hovering veil covered by a web of strings, inviting viewers to walk through it in a circular motion, looking up at them from all sides. Between the strings hang some empty envelopes that will be gradually replaced with envelopes written by the audience over the course of the exhibition.
For Shani, this exhibition has been a long time in the making, the fulfillment of seven years work, that began with a solo exhibition named There is No Street Like That in Haifa (curator: Tamar Dresner) within the larger Ready-made exhibition 100 Years of Ready-made (curator: Ruti Direktor). Since then the collection never stopped expanding.