Murderous Mary the Biennale Bear

We were invited to make a contribution to 'Project Biennale', a Biennale in book form curated by Amanda Beech, Jaspar Joseph-Lester and Matthew Poole with MA Curating students from Chelsea College of Art, Essex University and Sheffield Hallam University. The book was launched at SIAD gallery, Sheffield, and will be shown at St. George's Anglican Church, Venice from 4-27 June.

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Dear Jaspar

Proposal for Project Biennale: Murderous Mary The Biennale Bear

We recently came across an image, believe it or not, of an elephant being hanged. It was such a striking image that it demanded investigation. As we looked into its history there unfolded multiple and conflicting anecdotes about this strange event, various interpretations of its significance in the political context of America at the time, and discussions of the image itself and its veracity. The elephant, 'Murderous Mary', had been part of a traveling circus when she killed her handler, and was put to death in Erwin Tennessee in 1916.

The hanging of Mary remains a very 'live' piece of folklore. The story has hung over the town of Erwin ever since, and traveled well beyond with its residents. We found the vitality of the culture around this image fascinating, the way it keyed into various social histories and political contexts: colonialism, slavery, gender, reportage, appropriation, image-making, representation. In particular we were struck that all of this could be extrapolated from one single starting point, this unlikely image of an elephant's death that seemed to exceed its limits. All of this put us in mind of 'Project Biennale'.

We would like to collate the four pages available to us in the book into a single poster-size page, on which to present the image of Murderous Mary, just as we found it. Crucially, we would like for the poster to be folded and inserted within the book in such a manner that the image cannot be fully seen without, quite literally, taking apart the rest of the book. This is a little hard to describe in words, but our experiments suggest that it is in theory, practically possible to insert a poster in this way without disrupting the normal functioning of the rest of the book.

Perhaps it would be good to meet up to discuss this further so you can get a clearer idea of the practicalities of what we are proposing? In the meantime please find the image attached.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Chris, Ian and Alec

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Hi Jaspar

Thanks for your suggestions, considering them has helped us to think through the work in the light of the available options.

It seems important that the image itself is neither fragmented nor allowed simply to sit comfortably within the context of the book. We've come to the conclusion that either the poster needs to be inserted within the binding in some way so as to necessitate the taking apart of the book, or else it should sit entirely outside of it. I don't mean that to sound like an ultimatum, just that the apparent difficulty of achieving the first option has become significant for us. Given this difficulty, and the status of the book as an exhibition in its own right in relation to Venice, we feel locating the image outside of the book would be an equally appropriate way to activate the work.

So, working with your original suggestion of producing an insert, what we'd like to propose is a 4-page size poster, to be sited outside of the book itself but within the distribution mechanism that takes the book to exhibition in Sheffield and Venice. So the poster would become a parasite, or satellite exhibition if you like, to Project Biennale. It would also be hand numbered titled and signed by us so as to function quasi-independently as an editioned work.

Does this solve the problem?

All Best


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Hi Jaspar

Ok, we rather thought that might be the case. As it happens we've since had another thought about how we might be able to activate the image in relation to the book. What we'd like to suggest is that we use our first page simply to carry an announcement offering an exchange with the reader. In return for posting their copy of Project Biennale to us, we will send them a signed, editioned, poster carrying the image of Murderous Mary. We can pay for printing and posting the posters ourselves as and when we receive books from your readers. The second page would remain blank.

What do you reckon?


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