By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
In theory, a woman who has just been dumped by her lover is about as disempowered as it is possible to be – unless the woman in question is French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, whose intellectual, aesthetic response to heart break took Venice, New York and now the East End of London by storm.
When her man unceremoniously dumped her by email, Calle’s reflex was not to weep alone, but to ask 107 women – from a ballerina to a lawyer – to use their professional skills to interpret the break-up message.
The resulting multi-media work ‘Take Care of Yourself’ gets its title from the final line of her ex’s email. If he had known Calle at all well, the unnamed lover must have realised it was a cue: Calle’s way to take care of herself is through art.
Initially therapy, ‘Take Care of Yourself’ becomes objective and universally-relevant as an actress performs the ex’s lines, sending them up as she does so, a copy editor tears through his syntax and grammar and the lawyer analyses the breach of contract.
Critics have lavished praise. “What may have started out as a search for the catharsis to a painful breakup developed instead into arguably one of the most original and engaging pieces of contemporary feminist art in recent years,” wrote contemporary art publication ‘Whitehot Magazine’. Jonathan Jones of the ‘Guardian’ newspaper compared the variations on a theme and gradual crescendo to the music of Baroque genius J.S. Bach. “The emotional roar at the centre of it – her rage and bewilderment at the man’s cruel email – becomes louder and deeper with each new variant on the text,” he wrote. “You could almost call it conceptual art’s answer to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With each rewrite, the pain is increasingly real and hard to bear.”
More than 58,000 visitors have seen the exhibition, entitled ‘Talking to Strangers,’ which ended on January 3, 2010, and featured an overview of Calle’s earlier work, as well as ‘Take Care of Yourself’, first shown at the Venice Biennale international art exhibition in 2007.
‘The Sleepers’ (1979), for instance, is based on Calle’s inviting 29 friends, acquaintances and strangers to sleep in her bed. ‘The Bronx’ (1980) followed another of Calle’s many social experiments in which she asked random inhabitants of what was then a violent part of New York to take her to a place they would always remember should they one day leave. Arguably she was taking an unreasonable risk as a lone woman, especially a lone white woman in a black neighbourhood, but she is fearless in the name of art and her trust is rewarded with symbols of despair and hope. One subject takes her to the ruin of what was once someone’s home, another to a sapling.
“This exhibition leads you into the profundities of other lives, other hearts,” wrote Jones in the ‘Guardian’.
Sometimes Calle’s collaborators are willing, sometimes less so. One of her more controversial works is ‘The Address Book’ (1983). Drawing on her love of chance, when Calle found an address book in the street, she photocopied it before returning it anonymously to its owner. She then compiled descriptions of him after making contact with friends listed in the address book and arranged for them to be published in French newspaper Liberation. The address book-owner was furious and threatened to sue for invasion of privacy. In the end, he settled for a different kind of retribution: Liberation published a nude photograph of Calle, with Calle’s permission.
The publicity did Calle no harm in her native France, where she began her career by taking photographs of strangers in 1979 and has acquired a loyal following.
Apart from the country’s natural predisposition to intellectual concepts and to a psychological approach, Calle’s use of text, which turns words into objects often snatched from their context, recalls French literary theories that take on new force in an age of slogans and blogging that destroy traditional narratives.
France’s National Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou is displaying Calle’s ‘L’Hotel’ (1981), which she created during a three-month stint as a chambermaid at a Venetian hotel when she managed to photograph travellers’ personal effects.
An exhibition at the prestigious Whitechapel Art Gallery is a strong British vote of confidence. Founded in 1901, the gallery describes its history as “a history of firsts”. In 1939, the gallery displayed Picasso’s masterpiece ‘Guernica’ on its first and only visit to Britain. In 1958, it presented the first major show in Britain of seminal American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
‘Talking to Strangers’ is the first British retrospective of Calle’s work and ‘Take Care of Yourself’ is the UK premiere of the English language version of ‘Prenez Soin de Vous’.
“Neither mawkish not vengeful, this composite work presents a remarkable testament to the poise, wisdom and artistry of 107 women,” Iwona Blazwick, Director, Whitechapel Art Gallery, wrote in an essay. “This work of art proceeds from Calle’s transference and sublimation of pain and emerges through the symbolic acts of her female chorus.”
Its power for women is how it turns male rejection into female celebration.
Calle’s power for any audience is her exploration of intimacy to encapsulate the fascinating otherness of other people and our solidarity with them.