The HDB Heartbeat by Selvarani Munnusami

Mail art that comes with the HDB letter box

The work is obviously not mail art. It hardly contains any artistic correspondence with anybody with the mention of art-making. It is something else, an installation of a local artist sorting out her thoughts, an interrupted piece of artwork that seems more interesting than its intended end state. It is perhaps serendipity at work, one of the art world’s most elusive processes.

It is not by accident that Mark Dion was quoted as an influence on Selvarani’s works. If anyone has much to say about the value of junk mail and scrapes, it should be Mark Dion who combed the banks of river Thames for artefacts of various worth – pre-war metal bits, strange rusted vessels to contemporary PET bottles. If we appreciate Dion’s petite effort to save every last ounce of tiny Thames history, to document and archive the contents of it, we will appreciate Salvarani’s will to find the HDB letter box, and gesture to record (not keep) the contents of these abandoned boxes.

There is a certain poetic gesture in searching with great difficulty for something, and then finding it. I think this seems to be the cherry on top of the cake, a stark contrast to how Picasso would say ‘I do not search, I find’ (Je ne cherche pas, Je trouve). From the write-up available, the artist has gone through great trouble to find this array of letterboxes, and the work seemed to have lead her in the process, and not the usual other way round. She has gone from Town Council to MP, to sub-contractors, scrap yards and ping-pong-ed around. The work is much less about mail art, even though the intention to manufacture, write and mail postcards with images of flyers and envelopes that transit through our mailboxes, was probably the original thought.

There is something else that writes the work into my memory, the connection between a coursework report written like a ‘diary’ placed carefully on top of the letterbox in the gallery for all to read, the height of the letterboxes propped on top of layers of bricks. A curious video played on a small television in the metal carcass of the top left-most letterbox, of images of more mailboxes, with the fluttering sounds of the letterboxes disturbed from their slumber.

Next to the familiar letter box, which we are told are from Bishan, was placed a metal shelf with 20 – 30 cardboard boxes of mail categorised to some private taxonomy. Some were labelled ‘Bills’, ‘Education flyers’, ‘Repairs’. This reminded me of Andy Warhol’s shoeboxes of collected items found in his storeroom after he died. Would you be fascinated by the things of a dead but famous artist? Would you be equally thrilled by the things that a ‘somebody’ (as opposed to ‘nobody’) collects? There is something we all (85% of Singaporeans) have in common. Sorting mails, as we sort our lives, some with the same ease, others with difficulty. If only we could let go of burdens, problems, emotions as easy as we throw leaflets from the relentless housing agents! Possibly what the moment of opening the mailbox is what the artist referred to as the HDB heartbeat – a moment of anticipation for a letter from a loved one, a moment of annoyance the next bill or parking fine appears. It is romantic to think we are all the same when we open the letterbox, tired, expressionless or excited and nervous.

3 of 5 stars
SVA Degree Show 2006: a well placed suite exhibition that surprises.
Till May 14, 2006

2 responses to “The HDB Heartbeat by Selvarani Munnusami

  1. I personally felt this kind of art’s process of recordation is a reflection of straightaway reminder for residents, like me, the mail art also narrating story of personal everyday lives. There is another form of mail beside mailbox, is hand deliver from the postman when the mail is required depends on the size. How will you approach this to create art to relate to your original mail art?

  2. I think you have touched on an important and baffling issue, "can life be art?". Allan Kaprow, a fluxus artist in the Sixties, wrote several influential essays that affected performance art, or live art. These essays were later compiled to form the book "The Blurring of Art and Life", edited by Jeff Kelly.

    Allan Kaprow himself referred to Michel de Certeau's "The Practice of Erveryday Life", a deconstructed analysis of what made everyday life Significant, important, artistic. Some information and analysis of Certeau's text can be found here (

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