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PostSecret: wish you weren’t here

The secrets scribbled on postcards and exhibited in a London gallery don't provide an 'emotional x-ray'. In fact, they're shallow and samey.

Emily Hill

Topics Culture

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There are voices whispering from the walls of Foyle’s gallery in Foyle’s bookshop in central London; suppressed voices, lonely voices, guilty voices. ‘Please come back to me’, says one. ‘I wish I could live underwater’, says another. ‘I want to crap on my mother’s white rug’, says a third.

It’s nearly 5pm, and in one of London’s biggest bookstores American PR girls, dressed head-to-toe in black, are setting up for the corporate book launch of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood. The wafting smell from platters of salami and Stilton attack my nose as I try to appreciate the ‘secrets’ on display in these asinine artworks in Foyle’s gallery. The secrets are all about ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘me’; most of them confess a mental illness or sexual deviancy, or else just deliver a rambling quip. ‘I think I have an undiagnosed mental illness’…. ‘My sister and I explored each other sexually as children. As the eldest girl, I feel guilty that I may have molested her’…. ‘I’m an atheist but most of the time I’m afraid to say so.’ Some appear to be, not so much secrets, as outright lies: ‘He died…because I needed eyeliner.’ How is that possible, whomever ‘he’ and ‘I’ might be?

To keep you posted (no pun intended) this is an exhibition of the postcards from PostSecret.com, designed to help sell copies of a book also called PostSecret. It is the brainchild of Frank Warren, a successful businessman from Germantown, Maryland. Nulled by his daily life copying documents, his psychiatrist prescribed him Xanax, and Warren decided to become an artist. In 2004, he created a series of postcards made from photographs of his left hand, imprinted them with enigmatic phrases, and inserted each one in a bottle; then he threw them in the local lake. According to the Washington Post, ‘to engineer publicity for the project, he used false names and posed as a “finder/collector” of the bottles’, but when a Post reporter came to his door that autumn, ‘Warren said he couldn’t speak about them’.

By this time, Warren had come up with a more innovative idea, distributing 3,000 postcards that said: ‘You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to PostSecret. Each secret can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief, be legible, be creative.’

Since then, the ‘secrets’ have been flooding in (10,000 in the first year alone) and the best (however that might be judged) are displayed each week on PostSecret.com. Some have also been reprinted in various outlets, including the Observer magazine and now in Warren’s new book.

Hacks seem too busy eulogising on the PostSecret phenomenon, which apparently represents a new blooming of spontaneous humanity, to have noted the seedy Sunday supplement voyeurism of the whole thing, much less to have attack the sham idea that catharsis might be achieved by scribbling a sentence on a postcard and sending it to a website for possible publication.

‘Geographically’, gushed Sarfraz Manzoor in the Observer, ‘the postcards that arrive in [Warren’s] mailbox come from across the world. Emotionally, they originate from a place populated by the regretful, the confused and the guilty. Couples struggle with the knowledge that their marriage has been emptied of love; grown men mourn for the time they did not spend with their parents; employees worry that their jobs are killing their souls. The same themes recur like untreated wounds: regret, unfulfilled relationships, childhood abuse and self-doubt… A blurry outline of a wage-slave with briefcase floats in the middle of one card whose sender has written, “I don’t know what I want but I don’t want this.” Another person complains: “I work so much I am not a person any more. I am a machine.”’

For Manzoor, ‘scrolling through the site is like walking past a crowd of strangers and being able to peer deep into their souls; it is an emotional x-ray machine which reveals what we most wish to conceal.’ For Anne C Fisher PhD, who writes the introduction to Warren’s new coffee-table manual, ‘sharing our abnormalities makes us all the same’. Which is exactly the impression you get from the walls at Foyles. On the opposite wall, Foyles customers share their own ‘secrets’ on postcards and they’re all along very similar lines to the exhibited postcards. I’m so lonely; I don’t like crosswords; I hate myself and I want to die, etc etc. They are monotonous, thoughtless, banal. But then, what kind of person is going to be able to splay their soul, for real, on a piece of A6 card – upon which we normally write such brief and inane statements as ‘It’s raining’ or ‘Wish you were here’?

Far from showing up ‘emotional x-rays’, the PostSecret postcards are an exercise in shallow exhibitionism. They play to what is expected of them, and the postcards chosen for our consumption are chosen by a strict criterion. So no one but no one confesses to loving their day jobs (instead they’re all harassed, dead inside, only doing it for the money); none, surprise surprise, confess to any un-PC views, such as thinking that therapeutic politics is a bit naff and people should get on with their lives as they see fit. Reading postcard after postcard, what comes across is not ingenuity, but repetition: a wallowing in self-pity and desire for public recognition.

It is somewhat appropriate that a man who owned a document copy business, and who set up an art project to combat his sense of inner deadness, should have unleashed such a raft of facsimile sentiment on the public.

Emily Hill works on the editorial team at spiked. Visit the PostSecret website here, or go to the Foyles website for more information about the exhibition.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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