Please Add to: The Mailing Practice of Ray Johnson and György Galántai
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Between 1982 and 1986, Ray Johnson mailed five collages to György Galántai, a Hungarian artist censored by János Kádár's administration and its cultural policy of alienating its critics. Despite his limited means of direct collaboration with other artists due to his being prohibited from exhibition, Galántai's decision to disseminate Johnson's messages through his mailing list with an accompanying invitation to interpret and alter the mailings sparked a correspondence with over 300 individuals. This mailing activity expanded Galántai's and Johnson's respective spheres of influence and transformed the receivers of the mailings into active participants within an international network. Influenced by Ross Chambers's theoretical study of reading as an oppositional practice that can bring about shifts in desire, I argue that Johnson's and Galántai's mailing activities functioned oppositionally within their particular social and political contexts. While sociological studies of dissidence under communism attempt to categorize individual reactions to Soviet influence according to preconceived classifications, an examination of Galántai's critical artistic practice offers a case study of an individual's perception of Hungary's particular brand of communism. Focusing on Galántai's experience of censorship during the 1970s and subsequent turn to the mailing, this case study offers a way to parse out the Kádár administration's cultural policy of co-opting intellectuals and promoting consensus-seeking behavior. Though Galántai did not learn of Johnson's mailing practice until 1979, Johnson began mailing collages to his friends in New York City during the 1950s. Contextualizing Johnson's ironic humor and development of a mailing practice within the oft-called "age of consensus" restores the artist's oppositional project. As the McCarthy trials branded homosexuals as Soviet spies, Johnson pursued a queer visual vocabulary that escaped binaries and seduced individuals into partnership with his mailing network of friendship. Johnson's ironic humor proved so effective at subverting binaries that it provided Galántai, an artist living within the Soviet Union's realm of influence, the template to connect to artists living on either side of the Iron Curtain during the 1980s. Despite the temporal and geographical differences, Johnson's and Galántai's respective development of a mailing practice reveals an underlying commonality: sharing a desire to connect with others, both artists transformed the very terms of their alienation by using the mailing to form collaborative networks that functioned oppositionally within each context's particular manifestation of power.