Gisele Amantea’s “Dead Letters” are delivered in the form of large, seductive wall hangings made of fabric and flock (stiff, textured cloth used to produce decorative items such as wallpaper). The texts featured in the five pieces were written by women and come primarily from found notes. The dramatic shift in scale and materials transform the one to one intimacy of a letter or postcard into a riveting public testimony. Although there’s nothing quite as engrossing as the voyeuristic experience of accessing the personal and private, the works invite deeper consideration. Any attempt however, to learn “what’s really going on” raises questions about language in relation to gender, class and mental illness, and ultimately serves to reveal as much about our own attitudes towards these issues as it reveals about the writers themselves.
Beginning with Mable k (1997), we find a letter, addressed to Mrs. Oslo of Delisle, Sask., dated Sept. 5, 1940. Represented in cream flock over silky red, floral fabric, the piece hangs on the wall in a scale and shape resembling a bedspread. In the letter, Mable writes: “I hear that you was angry on me and I didnt do nothing and I want that you should give Alfred to me to getting married. . . .” It’s the gap between the grace and maturity of the handwriting and the writer’s poor command of language which is most striking. Is Mable infantile or is she simply doomed to express herself thus due to lack of education? We shift between discomfort and pity, but nevertheless come to realize that Mable understands marriage on the level of economic exchange. In mid-century, marriage was one of the few options open to women. It promised the legitimate roles of wife and mother along with security and a home (maybe even one decorated with flock and fabric similar to those used in the piece). Before settling into a standard feminist reading however, one must ask: Why does this marriage seem to depend on an arrangement between two women? Not prepared to be forgotten, Mabel appeals to the person with influence and in this case, that person is a woman.
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