You’ve Got Mail

Agnieszka Gratza on Eric Baudelaire’s “The Secession Sessions”

Eric Baudelaire, The Abkhazian Anembassy, 2014. Performance view, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway, 2014. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

I’M RUNNING LATE for my appointment with the Anembassador of Abkhazia. The fact that it’s only a mock-embassy hosted by an art institution and that I’m meeting the anembassador of a country that does not even figure on some maps is no excuse. Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, doesn’t seem to mind. I thank him for granting me an audience. The rules of the game have not been spelled out at any point yet I find myself playing along, unable to decide whether to take this exercise seriously or in jest.

While he goes out to fetch some milk for my coffee (the anembassy appears woefully understaffed), I inspect some of the “props” laid out on the plywood desk: the Abkhazian flag, featuring a hand surrounded by seven stars (as I soon find out, this stands for hospitality); a laminated map of the world showing in green the smattering of countries that officially recognize the Republic of Abkhazia (Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela among them); a set of postcards written and illustrated by Norwegian schoolchildren, aged eleven to thirteen, who came to visit the anembassy that very morning.

Letters to Abkhazia are what got us here in the first place. Back in June 2012, when artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire dispatched a letter to his friend Max (whom he met long before the latter rose in the ranks at the Ministry), he fully expected it to be returned to him marked “address unknown.” (France does not recognize Abkhazia’s existence, after all, and neither does the French postal system.) But a reply from Max did eventually arrive, in the form of an email, since the post office in Abkhazia cannot handle international mail.

The one-side correspondence that ensued, over the course of three months, forms the basis of Baudelaire’s new feature-length film Lost Letters to Max, which I watch in the anembassy room, doubling as a projection space, later that day. A sample typed letter with some typically cryptic/philosophical questions for Max to mull over is displayed in a vitrine by the entrance along with the envelope it came in. The collected Letters to Max, complete with Xeroxed copies of envelopes that bear witness to the logistic challenges the project posed for post-office staff, were published as part of Baudelaire’s exhibition “The Secession Sessions” at Bergen Kunsthall.

Baudelaire felt that no single medium could convey the complexity of the Abkhazian question, to which he has returned again and again, since he visited the country for the first time in 2000. His return visits to the region over the course of a decade have shaped his move from photography to film. Built around a film that is itself densely layered, the exhibition— with its live art component, in the shape of a conversation with Gvinjia—was followed by a seminar, timed to coincide with the end of the exhibition, exploring the issues raised by Abkhazia’s paradoxical and tentative existence from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

As the weekend slipped by, nothing came quite close to my initial, unpremeditated exchange with Gvinjia. Baudelaire wanted to offer visitors the same possibility of an encounter that he experienced in the course of his travels to Abkhazia. When I walked into the anembassy I knew next to nothing about the place, despite a visit to Georgia in 1997, which made me aware of this ghost state within a state. In the span of an hour-long conversation, meandering its way from topic to topic, we covered a lot of ground. More importantly, Max, who struck me as a cross between the noble savage and the Christian fool, gently impressed upon me his philosophical outlook on things, borne out of living in a permanent state of uncertainty.

Eric Baudelaire’s “The Secession Sessions” ran January 17–February 16, 2014 at the Bergen Kunsthalle.