I did not want to write about the Sophie Calle exhibition at the Paula Cooper gallery
. Then I read this piece
in Interview magazine, and thought Calle’s dialogue with interviewer Louise Neri so interesting it should be shared. For background, Calle was emailed
a break up letter ending with the phrase ‘Take Care of Yourself.’ The artist did not take well to the phrase, and sent the letter to be interpreted by 107 women in different professions. They cry, they rage, they analyze, they dance and one even teaches a parrot to repeat, “Take Care of Yourself” over and over. This work first appeared at the Venice Biennial in 2007.
SOPHIE CALLE: The rules of the game are always very strict. In Take Care of Yourself I asked the participants to answer professionally, to analyze a breakup letter that I had received from a man. The parameters were fixed. For example, I wanted the grammarian to speak about grammar—I wanted to play with the dryness of professional vocabulary. I didn’t want the women expressing sentiment for me. Except maybe my mother . . .
NERI: Yet, typically, she was one of the least sentimental! [laughs]
CALLE: I have my own sentiment—I don’t need that of others. This work was not about revenge. Even so, all the women spoke from their own points of view and, probably, many of them had been abandoned by men at some point in their lives.
Note: When this subject was brought up at the lovely art salon
I frequent, 3 of the 5 women present had received an email break up message. None of the men had. Those women tended to be more accepting of Calle’s exhibition, though I don’t believe any had seen it. When I saw it, I was struck by the sheer volume of items in the exhibition, but didn’t gain any insight into Calle or heartbreak. In anything, it made everything seem senseless.
NERI: Louise Bourgeois once said that art allows you to re-experience the past in a proportion that is objective and realistic. I could say the opposite about this work because one letter gave rise to an entire universe of response and nuance. It’s both a torture and a tribute!
CALLE: Yes! At the beginning, one of the titles I had in mind was “The Muse,” because this man was, in fact, a muse. Finally I didn’t, because “Take Care of Yourself” was more ironic. And, more strictly, it’s what I did.
NOTE: I rather like the idea of the man as a muse. But if you are a muse to so many women, why is Calle the artist? Because she was broken up with? Because she collected the responses? Because she arranged them on the gallery wall?
CALLE: It’s true that when I speak in public, everyone asks me about life and I always have to bring them back to the fact that it’s a work of art. The difference with many of my works is the fact that they are also my life. They happened. This is what sets me apart and makes people strongly like or dislike what I do. It is also why I have a public beyond the art world. I don’t care about truth; I care about art and style and writing and occupying the wall. For me, my writing style is very linked to the fact that it is a work of art on the wall. I had to find a way to write in concise, effective phrases that people standing or walking into a room could read.
NERI: At times, art struggles because reality can be so overwhelming . . .
CALLE: Art is a way of taking distance. The pathological or therapeutic aspects exist, but just as catalysts. I didn’t make Take Care of Yourself to forgive or forget a man—I did it to make a show in Venice. The show came to my mind because I was thinking, What can I do to suffer less? But once I got the idea, it took over, and I didn’t care about the therapeutic aspect anymore.
NOTE: The confluence of art and life that she speaks about in the first quote reminds me of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde
and all the accompanying questions of truth that stalked them. Calle, like those lovely men of mine, makes me feel as if she knows that she is manipulating her audience and she knows that the flux between art and life has brought more fame than she would have had otherwise. When Calle then explains how she uses her pain as a catalyst for the Venice Biennial, it seems cold and contrived.
CALLE: I never had victims. Well, there were only three cases, twice with lovers: Exquisite Pain and Take Care of Yourself, and The Address Book.
NOTE: Calle has a history of exploring intimacy in ways that might violate one’s notions of privacy, and it’s pretty fair to call her anonymous ex a victim here.
Whether it’s revenge or a way of working through something, the exhibition feels like its meant to tug at heartstrings rather than create an aesthetic object. The artist did little more than stage a scenario and collect responses in an way that feels like overly-pointed rhetoric. Whether the exhibition is heartless manipulation or angsty literalness, it doesn’t remain visually interesting enough to keep my attention. It merely poses as art.