by Collette Chattopadhyay

Barbara Hashimoto at the Chicago Arts District Exhibition, April 2008
Partial installation view: Tail and Haystack
photo: Shelley Anderson

Barbara Hashimoto’s newest site-specific work, realized through the sponsorship of Les Amis de la Terre at the Musée du Montparnasse-Paris, extends artistic and social themes that have permeated the artist’s work for years. After working in Los Angeles for ten years, she settled in Chicago in 2006 to assume work as an Artist-in-Residence at BauerLatoza Studio. Noticing the excessive amount of junk mail delivered daily to the firm, the artist asked the staff to set it aside for her artistic use. In deciding to work with ordinary, non-art materials, Hashimoto extends artistic practices begun by European Dadaists in the early twentieth century, who argued that the conceptual power of art is more significant than its material means or processes of realization. Ironically, within a month of beginning to collect the mail, she had a pile resembling a nineteenth century French haystack, of the type made famous by Claude Monet’s paintings.

Four months into collecting junk mail, the artist staged a performance work, which became known as Shredded Junk Mail with Grand Piano. By a stroke of luck, she had inherited a grand piano when she moved into her studio. Given her early training in not only art, but music and dance, Hashimoto conceived a performance art piece that juxtaposed the banality of junk mail with the creativity of music. While pursuing her daily, ritualistic collecting and shredding of the junk mail that continued to arrive, she approached the musician-architect Edward Torrez, inviting him to participate in the envisioned performance.

Junk Mail with Gand Piano | performance | 2007
Video Still | Eric Hoffhines

The event, presented in the artist’s spacious studio, began with Torrez playing one of his own contemporary, musical compositions while Hashimoto tossed shredded junk mail onto the piano. Eventually, the mail encased the piano and pianist, muffling the music and burying the musician. By metaphorically suffocating the music and the performer, the work poignantly addressed the imperiled status of the fine arts in the face of the labyrinthine social engine of media advertisement.

In April 2008, the artist was invited to present her Junk Mail Experiment works at a large, warehouse exhibition space in the Chicago Arts District. Publicized by the press and on view though January 2009, the work attracted a wide audience, which exponentially grew from those who visited the site physically to those who learned of the work by digital means. A centerpiece of the show was Junk Mail Landscape, which measured forty feet long by forty feet wide by eight feet high. As images and comments about the work spread through web-based blogs and communities, the artist’s works began to garner international attention, leading to her invitation to create an installation in Paris.

At their conceptual core, these large scale installation works accentuate by their material essence the overwhelming power of technological society that is driven by repetition and replication, and yet paradoxically remains systemically out-of-sync with nature’s seasonal cycles of change. Further, in creating installation environments of junk mail that resemble haystacks or the furrows of a plowed earth readied for planting, these works ironically transform manmade detritus into images of the earth that allude to its generative power and potency. Finally, in building works of shredded junk mail, Hashimoto’s installations initiate the process of recycling industrially manufactured junk, engendering stewardship of the earth’s resources, while underscoring the inherent impermanence of things.