After being questioned for hours by State security agents, I was deported. I have been permanently banned from returning China.
Hi Michael – Thank you for answering our questions at a socially acceptable distance of 4,500 miles (from Basel, Switzerland to Chicago, Illinois). We absolutely fell in love with your playfully wicked and poignant Postage Stamps project. How do you decide which stamps to create?
Originally the mere novelty of the experience was somewhat overwhelming and almost anything that was the right size would qualify as stamp-worthy, from matchbook covers to Cinderella stamps, such items as Christmas Seals and tax stamps. So all the early stamps were one of a kind. Then a friend who worked at a copy shop allowed me to begin making sheets on his Xerox machine It was a giant leap forward. Computers represented a quantum leap. They enabled me to design stamps with the freedom of fonts, color, detail and content in a way unimaginable when I started making them.
My work now has become essentially political with the world in such turmoil. With countries exhibiting nationalistic strains, xenophobia, intolerance, genocide, gender inequality, poverty and with the world suffering from the effects of global warming, deforestation, pollution, air quality ad so many other problems, it’s difficult not to be political.
The project began on the cusp of the appearance of the personal computer in 1991 and subsequently it has become so much easier to plan, design, print the stamps and to communicate with the network of folks who sometimes mail my envelopes. I used to need to rely on people visiting the countries I wanted to make stamps for, but now it is much easier to locate people residing in those countries and mail them packets of envelopes that they will anonymously drop into mail boxes.
The issues that I choose to address with my stamps are generally topical, based on news items, matters of historic concern and human rights. Conveying these issues concisely in stamp-sized snippets poses logistical problems both in terms of conveying the issue in a 1” x 2” format as well as being convincing, to postal authorities, as an authentic looking stamp with the correct denomination and postal designations.
With countries exhibiting nationalistic strains, xenophobia, intolerance, genocide, gender inequality, poverty and with the world suffering from the effects of global warming, deforestation, pollution, air quality ad so many other problems, it’s difficult not to be political.
How did you acquire the machine to create the perforations?
Serendipity. I was living in an industrial loft building along the Chicago River and one floor was used for the storage of recyclable industrial machines that were being shipped to Mexico for recycling. One day while wandering around these machines, I discovered one that was completely different from the damaged offset printers. After a few moments of exploration I discovered that it was an antique perforator, manufactured in 1890. And this was after I had begun making my stamps. It was such a monumental discovery that I immediately wheeled it to my loft. I continue use it to this day.
Have you ever gotten in trouble with the authorities over your stamp subversions?
Yes. My first brush with the law began with the very first show of the stamps. It seems it was such a novel idea that the show was written up in an article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. That evidently got the attention of the United States Postal Service and they dispatched a set of agents to surveil the show and engage me in conversation. I learned of this a number of years later when I received a (200 page) copy of my file from the USPS through a Freedom of Information Request. A pair of Postal Inspectors later paid a visit to my studio in response to a complaint from Swedish authorities about a stamp I had mailed from Sweden. They questioned me for hours and ultimately gave me a cease and desist order relating to the posting of my stamps, which I was told to sign and return to the Postal Inspectors Office. I refused to sign or return it. I actually enlarged it and used it as a poster for my next show.
I was also a regular visitor to China. Over the course of 10 years I would go to buy materials for the kites that I make; paper, fabrics, scrolls, books, and to commemorate each trip I would make a stamp which I would mail from China on vintage envelopes in hopes of further disguising my subterfuge. The stamps commemorated controversial topics such as the Tiananmen Massacre, the plight of the Uighurs, the Dalai Lama and the Falun Gong. Some of these were delivered and some were confiscated. In 2012 I was invited to show my kites at the Dulon Museum in Shanghai and I traveled there to spend three months to create the pieces for the show but soon after arriving the Chinese discovered that I was the person responsible for all the fake stamps that they had intercepted and I was arrested. After being questioned for hours by State security agents, I was deported. I have been permanently banned from returning China.
You are an amazing prolific artist who produces work in over a dozen mediums, including wood, metal, paper mache (here photographed with one of your paper mache sculpture), and jewelry. Are you a full-time artist?
Yes, I have been quite fortunate in being able to sell much of the art I make. I create work in various mediums and that tends to keep my working fresh, when I tire of a piece or medium I can simply move to another. While the challenges in various media are varied, solutions seem to apply from one to the other, such as the notions of the engineering, balance, coordination and mechanics.
What artists/people most inspire you and why?
I’ve been influenced by the artists Ai Weiwei, Picasso, Max Ernst, Robert Motherwell and Joseph Cornell. Also influential to my work were the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History in New York, Mudlarking (scavenging the Thames River foreshore in London for items such as shards of 19th century pottery, marble and bone which I use in my memory jugs), Folk Art (whirligigs especially), archeology, mosaics and mechanical toys.
Each artist represents for me the notion of embarking on a quest into an unknown and pursuing something meaningful; politically, visually, emotionally, historically or personally. The impulse to make sense of one’s surroundings, to bring order to it and to expand upon the idea and present it, these are the fundamentals to my, and their, work.
Can you share with us what you are working on now?
During the pandemic I began working on Memory Jugs, stoneware vessels that I festoon with pieces of broken porcelain sculptures, bits of china dolls, tiles, plates, cups and pitchers. I have boxes of these pieces and I build 3-D surfaces onto these vessels that kinda look like coral. They are these organic confections that take a long time to make, partially because glued pieces have to harden to the surface before I can move to the next section and because it’s just difficult to find pieces that fit together well.
I also recently installed a piece with a vintage letter O that blinks and a McDonald’s “M”, spelling OM in the window of a small gallery near my home called Ignition Project Space.
I am getting ready to install a series of lights that I made from old Yellow taxi lights with erector set bases in the space this month.
Sounds fabulous. We appreciate your time and hopefully you won't be getting any more 200-page letters! Meanwhile, dear readers, check out Michael's work here and some snippets we will be posting on our Facebook and Instagram accounts... Thanks again, Michael and onwards!