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One Artist's Snail Mail Quest to Get Every President's Autograph

Yi-Ya Chen discussed Taiwan's politics in her letters, but leaders were more concerned with sending back flattering pictures.

by Nadja Sayej
Feb 13 2014, 5:15pm
Image: Yi-Ya Chen

Though China and Taiwan recently started their first high-level talks in 65 years, Taiwan still has trouble finding recognition on the global stage. To highlight that need for acceptance, Yi-Ya Chen, a 24-year-old artist and new media student at the Taipei National University of the Arts, is currently running a project called “Dear President," in which she asked nearly every head of state on Earth for his or her autograph.

She began writing physical letters to world leaders in July 2011. “Dear president,” she wrote. “My name is Yi-Ya Chen, a girl from Taiwan. I am planning to do a project; this project is to get the autographed photos of the presidents around the world. I hope that you can help me to finish this project.”

After sending correspondence to leaders of every country in the United Nations, 193 in total, Chen received only 35 replies. She kept sending them letters (up to 10 per leader) until she got a response, even if only a rejection. Some replied immediately, others took a year to respond, some have yet to reply, and others rejected her request.

Chen at Transmediale. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

In her letters, Chen discussed Taiwan's geopolitical status, both with China and the globe, but no leaders mentioned Taiwan in their replies. In fact, alongside each autographed photo, no real information is included. The goal was to question the thin line between national identities and idolized political figures. “This represents a country’s image,” said Chen. 

The photos, which recently made their debut in Berlin and travel next to Paris and London, showcase the 35 world leaders who replied and their signatures. Chen also included their envelope often draped with national emblems and accompanying letters (though no stamps).

Refusing the use of email was a choice, not a last resort. Analog communication was essential for this project because of the power relationship. “It’s not email, click and send,” said Chen. “Email is direct, this process is symbolic. It’s opaque.” 

Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

The responses were varied. Mongolia was the only Asian country to reply, but they’ve always been anti-China. Europe was the keenest to reply, with 21 countries replying from the European Union. Six South American countries replied, including the current Mexican head of state, who replied on behalf of the former head of state, who Chen's original letter was addressed to a year ago. (Talk about efficiency.) Highlights include South Africa, Australia, Afghanistan, Brazil, Costa Rica, Finland, Greece and the United Kingdom, among others.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

Chen’s favourite response is from Prime Minister Elio di Rupo from Belgium. He included a personal letter with a black and white photo of himself wearing a bow tie. “I kindly thank you for your letter that retained all of my attention,” he wrote. “I wish you lots of success with your newly started hobby.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

The letter from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was written on behalf of his “Executive Correspondence Unit,” including a photo of Harper with a Canadian flag in what looks like a library.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

“In Colombia, they think Taiwan is part of China, so they sent the letter to China,” said Chen. Finally, the letter arrived in Taiwan after much time. The Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón’s secretary wrote “President Calderón sends you his best wishes and appreciates your visit to our webpage,” and encouraged Chen, in their letter, to visit the Colombian tourism website. The slogan is "The Answer is Colombia."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reply was on a postcard (they must be popular) with her signature on the front and her biography on the back. It was sealed in brown, recycled paper.

French President François Hollande. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

France’s François Hollande gets bonus points for artiness, as his photo is almost fashionable, showing Hollande sauntering through spring, included with a card that looks like a wedding invite.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Image: Yi-Ya Chen

Israel takes a similar approach, attaching a small card with a photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose signature is crammed into the bottom right corner.

What about the countries that didn’t reply? There was no reply from America or China. Singapore replied saying they received her letter but that they couldn’t accept her request. 

“Barack Obama never got back, I wrote him ten times,” said Chen. “Maybe the relationship to Taiwan? I don’t know.”

Chen continues to write political leaders, especially those newly elected. “Iceland’s former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir replied, the new one Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has not,” she said.