Lomholt Mail Art Archive

Journeys in Sealed Compartments

By Niels Lomholt

A swift move through painting, a period in England and art connections became a personal prime mover. Contact through the Mail Art Network became the key focus in 1970. A connection to Klaus Groh’s ICA in 1971 and participation in Bill Vazans “Contact” project in 1973, was the upstart to a long and intense interaction in the Mail Art network.

A journey to Gdansk, Poland in 1975 became the first Lomholt Formular Press event.
The event took place in a train compartment in the former DDR. In a sealed train from West Berlin to Poland, a train full of Poles going home, passing large quantities of vodka and cucumbers around, the spirit was elevated.
In this frivolous atmosphere a young well-dressed East German border guard entered the compartment. Being the only “foreigner” present the guard soon focused on me. In my suitcase were 200-300 photos, part of an exhibition I intended to show in Poland. In normal photographic terms, waste from the darkroom and snapshots, uneventful poor photos saved from the bin. The border guard took the photos and very slowly placed the photos one by one on an empty seat, to the amusement of the entire compartment. The animated Poles followed the show with great enthusiasm, drinking and commenting. After 15 min. of scrutinizing the photos and unable to detect any porn or military installations I was fined 50 DM for transporting illegal photos through the DDR, a corrupting move. Those were the rules, no reason to argue.

From the sealed compartment Lomholt Formular Press and the formula practice developed.
An innocent move, an exchange of private photos in a gallery in Poland, collided with the hard political realities of East/West, in a sealed compartment. A late thanks to the East German border guard, for his instructive demonstration then.

All the way through the 70s the various issues presented themselves, waking up to a political agenda on all levels. The constant reports from all continents, the East/West cold war, Vietnam, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, conflicts of all colours. The domestic affairs in the small welfare society of West Europe did not deny themselves a part in the transformation – the work market, education, gender, nuclear power, oil – the list was long. A world was in transformation. The conflicts came to look like a constant state of affairs, it was hard to ignore the issues and not getting involved.

The formula work, so far, had followed a variety of themes – from language, structure, perception to sociology and other issues on the agenda in the 70s – and wasn’t getting too obviously involved in the hardcore political issues, keeping the ART field open on to a wider perspective.

The first formulas from 1975 was a way to organize art elements, themes and questions, to follow the structure of art, turning the rules a little upside down into the unfamiliar. Some of the first formulas were very structured and inspired be the standard formulas in the way of question, answer and structure. From these first steps the formulas developed into a huge construction, referring to all elements and events of political and social character, occurring in the late 70s, sensitive to all changes, obtained and stored in the formula construction.

The PRISON formula (1978) is one of about 40 formulae to come out of this work.
An invitation came to participate in a show at Kunstbygningen in Århus, Denmark on the theme of ‘Prison’. These formulas and a live performance was my contribution. The formulas were printed and posted to a large number of Mail Art networkers.

The Prison formulas 1978 were a loose structure – lines, partitions, no formal questions, no straight move from A-B, no direct line between 1-2-3-4 – just presenting minor limits, with a few hints around ‘prison’ and the ‘inside’ / ‘outside’ dictionary definitions. The formulas invited responses within the framework of the formulae layout and the given paper size, the A4-format.

Many contributed to the project. Among others Davi Det Hompson, Henrik Have and Bernard Bailly responded to the paper and layout by cutting, folding and punching holes in the formula, a physical attack on paper, but keeping within and acknowledging the layout of the formula. Another statement on the theme of ‘prison’, a design and interaction within the structure of the formula came from Ray Johnson, Pauline Smith, R Mutt and Paolo Bruscky. A third type of reaction, were the more aggressive responses to the theme and the very idea of the formula from Istvan Kantor, Leonhard Frank Duch, and Pawel Petasz, by stamping, tearing and doodling intensively on the paper.

Imprisonment, in all its shapes and forms, were a key issue in the late 70s. Humans were under pressure on all continents.

The Prison project reflects this mood.