Thomas Michael BIDNER (1944-1989) A Commemorative Exhibition


Mike Bidner, a Canadian artist-philatelist, had approached all the major Canadian art institutions shortly before his death, inquiring about their willingness to house his ARTSTAMP collection - a collection of artists’ stamps comprising 10,000 images, complete with documentation on the stamp artists. All the addressed institutions, however, refused his offer. In the last moment, in the year 1989, he remembered that there was a place right on the other side of the globe that could be a suitable host: the Galántai-Artpool Archives and Collections, already known for their artists’ stamp projects. Artpool (i.e., J & G. Galántai) was naturally more than happy to host the Bidner bequest.

Bringing over the collection from overseas did not raise any difficulty for us, except for the customs tax concerning the value of the bequest, and the transportation costs. As luck would have it, or rather due to the ongoing process of political transformation in Hungary, Artpool had managed to become a legal entity; seeing as it was a non-profit foundation, Artpool received tax exemption, leaving only the transportation costs to us to cover. Nevertheless, the foundation did not have any money, let alone foreign currency. Thus, we decided to launch a campaign through which we hoped to collect the necessary sum: specifying the purpose, we offered my “Postflux-Fluxpost” stamp sheet in return for donations. Fantastically enough, the money for the transportation costs was collected: neither more nor less than the required sum - exact to the cents.

The most interesting feature of the bequest is the philatelist approach and practice so profoundly informing Mike Bidner's activities. He was an artist and an administrator, a commissioner, a collector, a philatelist and an archivist, all at once. His method of acquisition for expanding the collection implied exchanges and purchases via correspondence, along with the exhibition projects he organised. He also often took the exhibitions as occasions to sell items. Printed on long matrix printer paper folds, he mailed his partners detailed accounts of his work, surprising them from time to time with statistics of his own compilation.

A characteristic feature of the stamp images that Bidner created himself is that they are re-applications of the “ready made” type. He had collected images and motifs originally meant for advertisements or illustrations (mostly from newspapers), then gave them his personal touch through inscriptions or his monogram, and reproduced them in several copies so as to be used as exchange items. From these newspaper cut-outs, Bidner seemed to create his artstamps as if he had wished to retrieve the wild nature for his cultivated plants.

Art regained (hence the title of the exhibition); but one might as well call it “philately regained”, with reference to an entry in the Hungarian stamp encyclopaedia, which reads:

philately [fr. Gk, -philos: 'dear', 'friendly' + ateleia: 'tax exemption']: is a mistaken interpretation in its contemporary usage, since a stamp is, among others, exactly for the payment of mailing charges. Thus, philately itself is an incorrect definition (the friend of a tax-free object), but has been introduced and became accepted as such in general, and in the international usage.” [Bélyeglexikon / Encyclopaedia of Stamps. (Budapest: Gondolat, 1988. 273.]

Mike Bidner, as a “friend of the tax-free object”, discovered philately in its original meaning, as if it was granted. He designed his artists’ stamps in adherence to the most exact rules of philately, so that he took on all the roles and assumed all the viewpoints, as if all began at that very moment - not from the void though, solely from the already existent.

Postage stamps, including Bidner’s, have three relatives: the artist (art), the state (the post office), and money (the collector). An artist (Bidner) designs the stamp according to the stamp issuing plan of the post office (Bidner), on the basis of the stamp committee’s (Bidner’s) expert opinion, to then be published as determined by the Postmaster General (Bidner). The ultimate aim of this very complicated procedure is to create and secure the stamp’s stable value and high level of artistry, to shape the national character of its form, increasing the number of stamp collectors, etc.

What I consider a remarkable feature of Bidner’s art is that he had encapsulated his entire oeuvre in two A/4-size stamp sheets. The first, bearing the inscription and title of MAIL ART MASTERPIECE, comprised 16 stamp images, which he subsequently made in several versions of varying colours, sizes and groupings, sent in and/or stuck on envelopes. They are restrained both thematically and graphically, with the special Canadian motifs, the maple leaf, the crown, the national motto (from sea to sea), or a boy, a girl, a boy and a girl, the archives, stamping pad, texts from advertisements, etc. This stamp image collection was rather meant for usage when he launched his “artistamp” project, unlike the other sheet, with its 40 stamp images, which depicted the full panorama of Bidner’s personality and the 1980' s (conservative?, postmodern?) Canadian sense of being.

Bidner created each stamp images in several versions - cut and perforated, used (enveloped) and unused versions. He documented and numbered all of them (as if they had been created by somebody else than himself) on archival document sheets. The stamp images are numbered and archived in each of the versions: a terrific load of work. He archived his entire collection using the same method: each artist had a sheet comprised of several images, broken down to the stamp images. For example, he assorted the 756 stamp images included in the Artpool’s WAP catalogue according to individuals; cut them and arranged them on separate sheets, numbering each as was fitting into his computerised database. In the same manner, he immediately numbered the newer and newer stamp images he received, and put them in the database. This database has been annihilated since then, with the crash of the computer. We are no longer able to study Bidner’s system, but the collection is still available, as has been preserved at the Artpool.

Our connection with Mike Bidner dates from 1982, the year when he heard about the WAP catalogue, which I sent him on his request. From that point on, we regularly received his long letters - all printed on matrix printer paper folds - and promotion materials. I always opened these letters in admiration (also somewhat enviously), as during those years the Hungarian secret service, for reasons beyond my comprehension, made it shockingly impossible for me to satisfy my interest in these innocent artists’ stamps.

(About the WAP project: Cavellini’s auto-historisation activities of 1980 gave the inspiration to Artpool to hold its first artists’ stamp exhibition; hence, it was advertised as a self-memorial postage stamp project. When wording the call for entries, I aimed at making the response as simple as possible, so I prepared the entry form with an imitation perforation printed on it. The project, entitled “World Art Post” (WAP), was connected to a joint performance with Cavellini, the Vera Muhina performance, in which I requested Cavellini to write the names of the most significant artists on our clothes, instead of his self-history. I prepared the WAP catalogue myself, with the 756 stamp images that we had received on the call. Also from this visual material, I subsequently ‘directed’ the “Stamp Film”, with the sound track compiled from sound art works by the networkers.)

It was not until five years later, in 1987, when I returned to artists’ stamps. Commissioned by the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts (namely, Judit Geskó), I advertised a new call for entries under the title “Stamp Images”. At this point, I realised the magnitude of work that Mike Bidner had done during the previous five years in the world of what he called, the ARTISTAMP. What happened was that we received an inconceivable amount of stamp art works, all of various techniques, both unique pieces and copied ones. The collection housed in Artpool became multiplied, so that the Gallery of Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Art proved to be too small to exhibit the entire material. That is why we were bound to select from the entries, quite contrary to the rules of Mail Art. Mike Bidner considered presenting his activities within the Budapest show, but his accelerating disease thwarted his plan.

The ultimate goal of Mike Bidner’s artistic endeavour was to achieve the recognition of artists’ stamps as paraphilately. He never learnt it - although he could have possibly been informed somehow - that, by mere chance, his desire had come true, albeit not in Canada, but in Hungary. In the year of 1988, the first fullest stamp encyclopaedia of the world was published in Budapest, in which - owing to the “Stamp Images” exhibition as had been organised by the Artpool in 1987 - as many as six entries were devoted to artists’ stamps.

György Galántai