Harriet Lowther is passionately thankful – for every product she has ever used. In fact, this gratitude has allowed her personally undertaking to thank as many companies as she can to evolve into an extraordinary art project.
‘The Big Thank You Project’ is a collection of 224 A4-sized thank you letters sent by Lowther each for a different product or service, with individualised messages about why she appreciates them.
Displayed in rows on a huge wall at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, viewers can read each one – as well as some of the replies the artist has received.
The Project started last Christmas, when the 24-year-old photography-based artist thought, “what about the people who sit there for days, weeks, months or maybe even lifetimes; making the same thing over and over without even so much of a thanks?” She reasons: “if I use the product, I must like it; otherwise I would not use it, no matter how small”, even “the little trinkets which surround me, the objects which define me, the inanimate things which make me me.”
“The project was never intended as an art project; it very much began as a personal endeavour. I think this is what reinforces its sincerity, as there never was an original directed audience. They were written for no one, except the recipient of the letter,” continues the artist, reflecting on the direction and motivation behind her work.
Lowther is keen to tell a dramatic evolutionary tale, from how “I had never thanked someone I didn’t know, had never met or even spoken to … it was a process,” to how “I would reward myself with a dose of nicotine whilst the letters printed” and “awaited the postman with eager anticipation, it became a habit (the Royal Mail have of course received their own personal thank you letter)”.
Soon, ‘The Big Thank You Project’ developed to a far greater scale for the Glasgow School of Art Fine Art Photography graduate. “The letter writing was getting out of control,” she confesses.
“It became my life. I was living the art project. Except it was no longer an art project, it was a quest …where no one could be left out. I couldn’t live with the guilt of forgetting the maker who had put so much care and attention into making the pencil I had used as a child.”
The underlying message of the project could be interpreted through the issues which Lowther went on to consider, such as commercialism, consumption, gratitude, etiquette and anti-capitalism.
She admits, “I tend to pick up on things most people forget. I like to notice what others miss”, whilst “discussing topics to which we can all relate”.
Within her exploration of contemporary commercialist tendencies, Lowther forces the viewer to evaluate what products they use themselves.
At first glance, the near formulaic white spreadsheet display of ‘The Big Thank You Project’ seems as though it could in no way be an introspective spectacle.
Yet closer inspection of its theme, and apparent purposefulness in awakening simple appreciations, allows Lowther’s letters to progress past conventional expectations of traditional written communication.
Her use of a factually authentic medium provides a realistic dimension to her work.
The Lancashire artist explains: “On one level, like Kafka, I was attempting to conquer the institution, breaking down the barriers between myself and unapproachable companies. I was making myself heard.”
Lowther received complimentary gifts as a result of the project, the first of which was “two perfect packets of Silver Spoon Sugar”, and consequently an eyeliner, pens, an umbrella, cod liver oil and a LEGO set.
“I was shocked at the amount of things I received in return, as I was just not expecting them.” Companies began to remember Lowther, at which point she questioned the sincerity of her letters.
Although her plight was genuine, she wondered whether the meaning behind her thank you letters would be misconstrued. “If you say something too many times, meaning is lost. If you don’t say it at all, there is no meaning. I couldn’t win.”
“The amount of things we own or use is almost inconceivable. This project recognises and addresses that. The overwhelming number of letters will, on a basic level, force people to realise the amount of things they use so habitually, and maybe be a bit more grateful for what they have.”
After 242 letters, “I am staring to wonder where it will all end, if it will. Where does it stop? I use new products all the time, no matter how insignificant. I could continue with this project for the rest of my life.”
‘The Big Thank You Project’ has just finished displaying at the RSA in Edinburgh as part of the Royal Scottish Academy New Contemporaries exhibition.
More of Harriet Lowther’s work can be found at www.harrietlowther.com.