Return to Sender
Batia Shani sent the first set of envelopes in 1994, as an act of trial and error. Shani sent out envelopes, decorated with embroidery, to galleries and various art institutions, naively expecting to get them back with some added element or with a letter. Most envelopes were not returned. Bypassing the art world in an act intended to avoid imminent disappointment, and suggesting a different form of display, she continued sending envelopes around the world. This time she tried to control the process and make sure that most of them would be returned.
Shani began sending envelopes to non-existent people in fictitious addresses, knowing that the envelopes would be returned when the address or the person would not be found. Her manipulation of the postal services made the postal workers in different countries active participants in the envelope project. With their help, but without their knowledge or permission, she has created a wide-ranging, border-crossing exhibition.
The switch from the playful, humorous, free act of sending the envelopes to making them a pointedly political statement occurred after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Shani has decided to commemorate the first anniversary of his death by mailing envelopes with a postage stamp carrying his portrait. Years later she employed a similar tactic with envelopes carrying stickers which read "Free Ron Arad" and "Gilad Shalit is Still Alive." In those few cases she has opted for real addresses.
Shani's own biography, which includes wandering and living in different countries while contact was maintained mainly by letter, no doubt carried weight in her decision to work with envelopes. Only in a later stage, Shani became aware of the Mail Art movement, which began with the Fluxus movement in the 50s and 60s, with Ray Johnson as its herald. While early mail artists based their work on conceptual issues and on connecting with other artists, and placed less value on aesthetics, Shani's has focused on just the opposite. The action is reflexive, the dialog is with herself, and the visual dimension is highly important. The containing aspect of the envelope has been disposed of and its surface is used as a bed for collage. The surface also signifies a point of encounter and friction between the individual and the state, between the writing and the memories of a private person and the authorities who scan this private information, voiding and deleting it when it does not conform to the system's logic.