Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself at the Paula Cooper Gallery
534 West 21st St.
New York, NY 10011
April 9th through May 22nd, 2009
Conceptual art has always operated in the province of the prank, the territory of the trickster. Its aim, which might be described as aesthetics by other means, is to question notions about the definition, social function, economy or ethics of artistic practice with a shocking, humorous gesture rather than with a straightforward philosophical investigation. When Sophie Calle inserted herself into this tradition in the early 80’s, she took the porous boundary between privacy and publicity as her theme.
In Suite Vénitienne (1980), for instance, Calle secretly follows Henri B., a man she meets at an art opening in Paris, all the way to Venice, where for two weeks, like an undercover detective, she photographs him and writes reports on his activities. In The Hotel (1981), she gets a job as a maid at a Venice hotel, so she can rifle through the rooms of its guests, creating an imagined portrait of each of them based on their personal belongings, including their correspondence. Most controversially, Calle finds a man’s address book and returns it to him, but not before photocopying its contents, interviewing the people listed in it, and publishing the results as The Address Book (1983) in the French daily Libération. The man, known only as Pierre D., was so outraged that he threatened to publish nude photographs of Calle in revenge for her invasion of his privacy. To her credit, she permitted him to do so. In other work, presumably out of fairness to her previous subjects, Calle turns the table on herself, allowing her own life to be put on display.
So in 2004, when her then-boyfriend, writer Grégoire Bouillier, dumped her via email, he must have known what he was getting himself into. After replacing Bouillier’s signature with the anonymous—and to American ears, punning—“X”, Calle copied his email, which ends with the cloying valediction “take care of yourself,” and sent it to 107 women, including two puppets and a parrot. All were instructed to interpret the letter in the language of their respective skills or professions, as a kind of collective therapy.
The result is Take Care of Yourself (Prenez soin de vous), Calle’s contribution to the French Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennial. An abridged version of the exhibition is now on view, for the first time in the United States, at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea.
About half of the interpretations are filmed recordings of performances by actresses (including Jeanne Moreau, Maria de Medeiros, and Miranda Richardson), pop singers (including Peaches and Feist) and opera singers, as well a ballerina, an Indian classical dancer, a DJ, a Japanese puppeteer and, memorably, a clown. In what was perhaps the best performance, Calle sits in a chair across from the seated, anthropomorphized email at the office of a family mediator, whose voice we hear off-screen attempting to reconcile them.
The other half subject the email to a variety of hermeneutic contortions, from Talmudic exegesis to proofreading, from translation (into English, Latin, Braille, code and SMS) to lexicometry and psychoanalysis. The email is reborn as a cartoon, a crossword puzzle, a tarot card reading, and a chess problem. A sexologist refuses, on hospital stationary, to prescribe Calle antidepressants for it, while a markswoman puts three neat bullet holes in it. A criminologist concludes that “X” is “an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous, and/or a great writer.”
Finally, Calle takes a photograph of each of the interpreters with a copy of the email, the full text of which, translated in English, is made available to viewers of the exhibit. The diversity of analytic angles, however, yields a surprisingly slight range of affective responses. There is pathos and bathos aplenty, as well as a fair helping of comedy and cleverness, but nothing I saw, either in the performances or in the textual re-imaginings of the break-up email approached profundity or rigor. Explicitly therapeutic — in the sense of shallow empowerment rather than serious self-examination—Take Care of Yourself sometimes reminded me of a feel-good exercise from Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More. In these instances, the exhibit was redeemed from vapidity by the fact that its contributors were, on the whole, world-weary French women, rather than cheery Californians. It is a truth universally acknowledged that e-dumping is gauche, and one may sympathize with Calle’s predicament, and have a good laugh along the way. However, I don’t think either women or men will gain any new insights into why relationships decay, or how they ought to respond when they do, as a result of seeing Take Care of Yourself.
One reason for this is that the exhibit invites a gendered, rather than simply human response, and not, I should add, in any meaningful way. We are not asked, for example, to consider whether a gendered response to a break up email is inevitable. I will admit to having been slightly offended when a female member of the audience, with whom I had just shared a chuckle over the clown’s genuinely funny reading of the email, whispered in my ear, “it’s nice to see that a guy can laugh at this, too.” And why wouldn’t I? Surely men have received such emails? Surely they are capable of imagining what it is like to do so? Her assumptions—encouraged if not necessarily sanctioned by the omnipresence of female interpreters in the exhibit—are two-fold: 1) that our sympathies are with Calle, not as the recipient of a hurtful piece of news, but as a woman, and 2) that only another woman would be capable of feeling said sympathy. Take Care of Yourself would have been vastly improved by explicitly complicating these assumptions. Calle could have done so, while still retaining the conceptual integrity of her piece, had she included transgender voices in her female chorus.
Another—related—reason is synecdoche: privileging breadth over depth, Calle asked her interpreters and, by extension, asks her audience to allow Bouillier’s one page Chère Jeanne email to stand for the entirety of their relationship. But we are missing crucial pieces of information, namely a history of the relationship itself, which must have had its private codes of communication, its personal points of friction, and its own complex narrative. This is not to say that such an email could not be the springboard for good art, only that, without an account of the relationship it ended, it is reduced to being just another text, another random collection of words, in which case, the deconstructions of, say, Catherine Malabou the philosopher are just as good as those of Brenda the parrot, who, as if aware of this fact, crumples the email in her claw and pecks it to shreds.
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Ryan Ruby is a writer in New York.