Death at Tomb Street Billboard Exhibition

Artist Israel Kessler reflects on working in Royal Mail's Belfast-based dead letter office with inner-city billboard display

For the month of November 2014, a sinister clown has been peering down at unexpecting pedestrians and drivers from two adjoining billboards located on Belfast’s adjoining Corporation St and Dunbar Link.

'Death at Tomb Street' is the brainchild of Belfast artist Israel Kessler and represents his time working as a casual mail worker at the National Returns Centre, the dead letter office for the UK, based in Royal Mail’s Tomb Street Depot in central Belfast.

Kessler, whose work often focuses on the human condition and daily struggle to make ends meet, explains that the photographic piece gives expression to the famously black humour of the Belfast people and of the low-paid production line worker.

'The idea for the work came through my experience at the dead letter office doing very long shifts over a period of months,' Kessler explains. 'I wanted to take that intensive slice of life, where I worked every shift, every hour, every day, selling my labour for money, and turn it into something meaningful.'


The idea to include a clown character in his finished piece was not to detract from the efforts of the menial worker, Kessler is quick to make clear, but rather 'from a conflict between myself and one of my colleagues'.

'I reflected on this because I really liked this guy,' Kessler recalls. 'I thought he was very genuine and honest. So the following shift I decided that I needed to adjust to the work environment and without any kind of conscious effort on my part, I got the visualisation of a clown’s nose on my face. Effectively it was me telling myself to catch myself on and get a grip, move on and see the humour in this situation.'

Just before he left his temporary contract at the dead letter office, around two years ago, Kessler talked his colleague, John Costello, into playing the part of Death, the clown featured on the billboards. He pitched the idea to Royal Mail and finally got the go ahead to display his work in a public place.

Kessler explains that he had always planned to show his work in November because of its association with death – following on from the pagan festival of Hallowe'en, of course, and also including the Mexican Day of the Dead, which runs from October 31 to November 2. 

For him, the experience of working in Tomb Street showed how humour comes into play when people are doing hard, low paid production work. His main interest, he says, is in the role of humour in keeping people defiant and strong in difficult circumstances.

'Doing work that is simply trading your labour for money isn’t given the same social status that other work is,' Kessler argues. 'In the process of doing that kind of work, people have to face up to the disparity between their own high ideals and dreams and what they are actually doing right there and then.

'You’re working with a crew of other people and you know that they are going through the same thing. Nobody wants to be there, they’ve all got other things they want to be doing with their lives. I think that’s where the sense of social solidarity and black humour comes from.'

Kessler notes that, from his extensive travels around the world, he has observed that black humour is 'pretty universal' in tough situations, yet is not something that those who have not experienced 'hard graft' always learn easily. He believes that we could all learn a little by reflecting on events that occur throughout our everyday working lives.

'People don’t often talk about these little day dreams they have in their lives, but I think if you slow down and start to pay attention you might learn some important things about how to adjust and adapt to the world as it is arranged.'

Death at Tomb Street on display at Corporation St./Dunbar Link, Belfast until November 30.