A sunset frozen in postcards, Vilanova at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art

The exhibition ‘Sick fireflies and lightings in jars’ places collections and collecting at the front-stage of what a museum does.

‘MAUSOLEUM’ BY Oriol Vilanova.  (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
‘MAUSOLEUM’ BY Oriol Vilanova.
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
Do you have a collection? If so, where do you keep it? What do you collect, and why?
The ever-increasing speed and hyper-digitalization of our cultural moment seemed to have liquefied such time-honored middle-class traditions like the music-records collection, the neatly piled video cassettes or, later, DVDs, not to mention the house library.
We are often encouraged by large media companies to prefer digital or audio books to paper ones, to listen to music via apps and watch films using a streaming service.
This, we are told, is how things are done in a world of digital nomads.
“Does it bring you joy?” asks Marie Kondo in her 2011 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If the answer is no, toss it out. Israeli street benches are often heavy with complete encyclopedias, used clothes and even washing machines cast aside by their former owners.
In an ever-more precarious economy, fewer and fewer people enjoy the stability of homeownership and with it, the bourgeoisie pride of owning nice things that are passed on from one generation to the other. Like nice tea sets for special occasions or heavy silverware.
If, in the past, owning and taking pride of such things were expected of adult members of society, our times are less certain. With e-mails mostly taking the place of handwritten letters and emojis rapidly taking over texting, which replaced the phone call. Encountering a postcard in one’s post-box now can have quite the emotional effect.
Catalonia-born artist Oriol Vilanova should know, he amassed 120 different collections of postcards in more than 20 years of daily searching in the flea markets of Brussels, where he now resides.
Now presenting his work “Mausoleum” in Israel for the first time as part of the Sick fireflies and lightings in jars exhibition at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art, he told The Jerusalem Post that even after selling some of his collections to museums, he “keeps them alive” by continuing to buy more postcards for them and always expanding them.
Vilanova is the only collector chosen by curator Noam Segal to show his work in the exhibition, which includes “G/host,” a mini-show that deals with local art history as explored by contemporary artists, and how collections can be used by artists to explore wider issues.
Postcards cover a vast variety of themes and subjects. They can come from societies that no longer exist, such as the USSR, Nazi Germany or Rhodesia – making them a historical object. They can silently remind us of past crimes like lynching postcards do. They can, as the postcards presented in this exhibition, show scenes from museums around the world. Carrying with them the self-imposed serious ideal of becoming a better person by visiting important art collections, seeing them first-hand and reporting of doing so to friends back home.
This work, containing 2,193 postcards from museums all over the world, takes up two walls. All the postcards are hung diagonally.
Twined with the creation of photography and the mass-produced image, postcards are one way in which the popular “eye” was shaped and expressed before the digital age.
THE 1919 work L.H.O.O.Q by Marcel Duchamp, in which he drew a mustache on a postcard image of the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci, was so effective due to that fact that few people taunted the heights of Western Civilization in 1919.
Nor was Duchamp the only artist to use the mass-produced image in his work. Francis Picabia, notes Vilanova, used postcards when he painted landscapes. Francis Bacon was famous for cutting up pictures from medical books, newspapers and postcards and keeping them in his studio as visual reference points for his paintings.
Vilanova has Spanish postcards from the Fascist period in his collection, but only because he is “interested in the archaeology of that visual culture.”
“There are,” he says, “victory postcards of the so-called ‘New Empire’ [when the Spanish Civil War ended].”
Comparing postcards to painting, he suggests that “it’s dead, but not really dead, as people still use it.”
“I’m not nostalgic,” he points out, “the word postcard will remain in the language,” even when fewer and fewer people buy them and send them.
In 2017, he invited flea market sellers to enter the Fundació Antoni Tàpies museum in Barcelona and sell their postcards there. In that year, he wrote Borrowed Words, a play about a collector who is speaking to his or her collection. Translated from Catalan to Dutch, English and French, the show is always performed by a real collector, never by a professional actor.
“The play is about the love a person has for his, or her collection,” he says, “they read the words and the way they read is always different, but the psychology is the same everywhere.”
In his collecting process, Vilanova is interested in life and time. “I must have spent as many hours at flea markets talking with sellers as a painter spends in his studio,” he laughs.
This concept of time, hours spent in conversation which are not goal-oriented as the seller might refuse to sell the postcard at this price, or he might refuse to pay so much for it, or another buyer might come by – is what makes his work slightly challenging as it goes against the global trend of virtual purchases.
Vilanova, after all, could buy his postcards on Amazon or eBay or have them printed from digital files, but what gives his collection its presence is that it is “charged” with human time. Humans chose these postcards, sent them and read them before they ended up at the flea market.
“When I’m buying postcards, I’m not producing anything,” he says, “I collect even if I don’t have a show coming up.”
“I pick postcards without people,” he told the Post, “a landscape in which things happen without humans. If you see one sunset, it’s pretty, but 3,000 sunsets, all the same, become a nightmare.”
Sick fireflies and lightings in jars, curated by Noam Segal, will be shown until December 28 at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art. 30 Haim Arlozorov St. ttp://www.petachtikvamuseum.com/en/