Each of the 7000 postcards sent out by EJ Major carries an image from the film ‘Last Tango In Paris’, link possibly to act as inspiration to the recipients as they pondered the question printed on the back. Not that it is a question, really, it simply says: ‘love is…’, and the chosen film is actually pretty ambiguous on the subject. Still, 450 people answered the challenge, returning the card to Major complete with their own tuppence worth on the topic that is love. Now the result has been gathered in a limited edition book. We had a chat with the artist about the inspiration behind the project, and how she feels about the result.
What inspired this project? Was it the film, the idea of strangers working together, or something else?
The inspiration for a project is always a question or an uncertainty, a niggle over something, though often I’m not even sure what that niggle is until some time later. At the time of making this project I had become fixated on freezing films. I’d completed the piece ‘Try To Do Things We All Can Understand’ where I used images and text from key scenes of certain films to see if I could apply Barthes notion of the punctum to moving image. Following this I had started freezing each second of particular movies and turning them into a vast series of stills. I’d been doing this for some time and was looking for where to take the idea. After making a kind of narrative wallpaper of films like ‘The Swimmer’, ‘Swedish Love Story’, ‘The Misfits’, I was struggling to push the idea further. Then I froze ‘Last Tango in Paris’ and the idea to turn each still into a single postcard suggested itself. I can’t remember which came first, love or strangers… I think love and I chose to begin a survey on love because I was struggling with it. I genuinely wanted to know what other people had to say on the subject. I wanted to put these elements together and for once, just wait and see what happened.
Why ‘Last Tango in Paris’? From what I remember it’s not exactly a romantic film, but I’m guessing that’s part of the point.
‘Last Tango in Paris’ is a film I have watched again and again. It’s a film that bothers me and at the same time I’m seduced by. The film is shot beautifully and its construction is simultaneously episodic and climactic, so it has both pace and presence. Much focus has been given to the sex scenes in the film and for good reason. They are a mix of passion, tenderness and viciousness and within the canvas of a film, difficult to reconcile. This is part of my fascination with the film. At the same time I don’t see the film as “about sex” in the way that say pornography may be said to be about sex. In this sense I do see the film as more “about love”, predominantly romantic love but not exclusively. The thrust of the film is the relationship between the two central characters but in its episodic construction we are given insights into the relationships between these characters and others, familial and romantic. I do, however, see the film as determinedly anti-cliché. This was important in putting it alongside a prompt like ‘love is…’.
Tell us a little about the answers you received from the returned postcards. Was it what you expected?
Well one thing is the answers are generally less answers, more responses and the responses are many and varied. This is part of what interested me with this approach. Some people did attempt to find a response to the prompt ‘love is…’ whether that was personal or from another source. But others responded to the very idea of the project or in terms of their recognition of the film or even just to the image itself. Some just sent the card back blank. One lady returned the postcard in pristine condition along with a formal hand-written letter thanking me but politely stating that at the age of 85 she would not be requiring my services. As the card she received was an image of the two central characters embracing, I can only guess what she thought my services might be.
The responses are as diverse as the people who responded. Some are predictable others unexpected, some are outpourings, others very stark, some are sad, angry even while others are funny, life affirming or very personal meditations on the subject. One person just tippexed out the ‘love is…’ and returned the card, a subtle but quite unsettling response. Someone else wrote: “You need to get a life mate!” which always makes me smile. The more personal responses I think you need to read for yourself but there was rather more God than I expected. I value each of the responses but I’m also interested in the interplay of the elements at work; text, image and meaning and how they intersect. Also how people attempt to find their way out of a cliché, or don’t.
This project took years to complete and depended on the co-operation of strangers. I suppose this meant the outcome was somewhat out of your hands? Are you satisfied with how it turned out?
About 6% of the postcards came back over the course of two years which meant around 450 responses of the original 7000+ delivered. To be honest, the outcome was something I couldn’t predict and that was one of the reasons for starting this project in the first place. At the time I was working on the ‘Marie Claire RIP’ series which is based on a set of police mugshots of the same woman over a 14 year period. I was restaging these using myself as the subject. The whole process was very intense and quite isolating as I was at once model, photographer and retoucher. I needed to do something where I threw up control of the outcome. Although obviously now in the organization of the returned material back into the narrative sequence of the film and the production of the book, I am taking control again.
I’m not satisfied with the outcome as much as by turns exhilarated by its possibility (at this stage I haven’t yet seen the finished book), exhausted by this 7 year endeavour, continually beguiled by the film, humbled by the collaboration of strangers and somewhat in awe at how alive the whole shebang still is to me.
You asked strangers to complete the sentence ‘Love is …’. How would you complete it?
I didn’t expect anyone to really complete the sentence, just respond if they could. I have a million responses and none. I guess my response is a small bow, a thick book, a bemused smile and an infinity of dots…
‘Love Is …’ will be released 1st August – buy it here. EJ’s website is here. ‘Love Is …’ will also be on display during EJ’s forthcoming solo show, Shoulder To Shoulder, at Matt Roberts Gallery in Bethnal Green. Running between 2nd and 24th September.
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