To the Letter

John Haber
in New York City

Sophie Calle

With Facebook, people's most intimate thoughts and embarrassing details become a matter of public record. Sophie Calle makes art the same way, but she is not giving anything away. Sophie Calle's Take Care of Yourself (Paula Cooper, 2009)

With Take Care of Yourself, in New York for 2009, she shares the pain of a breakup with more than a hundred of her nearest and dearest friends—and, through them, with countless others. In the process, she almost disappears, and one knows her subject only as X. She also leaves the funniest and most intimate record of her disappearance yet. It gets more exuberant still after a look back at earlier work, starting in 2001.

Ex marks the spot

In Calle's latest nested lives, that X is also an ex:

I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn't know how to respond.
It was almost as if it hadn't been meant for me.
It ended with the words, "Take care of yourself."
And so I did.

And so she did, by giving the email to one hundred and seven women, so that they could respond for her. A stack of copies sits just past the gallery door, in English, so that you must respond, too.

The results explode across the cavernous Chelsea gallery, while leaving it noticeably empty except for you and me. The women fulfill their assigned task as professionals, with everything from interpretive dance to a crossword puzzle. Photos of performances cover both sides of a partition, separating the narrow entry from the main space. More than half a dozen videos compete behind a curtain, in the smaller space by the window. The rest of the show staggers along the main walls. One woman translates the man's words into Latin, as if to make certain that one will not understand them.

The lover's email runs through pretty much every possible cliché, right down to ending a romance by letter. He tells of his pain, as if unable to imagine hers. He talks of breaking up as if he were in fact keeping a promise, of being truthful. He says that he will always love her. Of course, he ends with "take care of yourself." The email all but begs its recipients to tear it apart, and so they do.

Actors subject his feelings to ridicule, intentionally or not, merely by enacting them. Psychologists and psychics look for clues to his personality. He is sensitive and creative, narcissistic and disturbed. A therapist analyzes him in his absence, patiently addressing his letter propped on an empty chair. An editor slams its awkward repetition, with multicolor highlighting. The English translator attaches a dozen notes, mostly about the poor choices that it forced on her.

If you have followed Calle's past work, you may have your doubts. Can so many men over the years have dumped her, and is she still falling for them? If so, can I get a date? With her, though, the role of a victim quickly becomes an act of defiance, and defiance quickly becomes self-scrutiny. It is also very funny.

Access and intimacy

Calle has been making the same confession of lost love for some time now, while a photographer like Uta Barth prefers to slip just off camera. And each time she manages to bring more voices with her into the confessional. She could have called almost any of her shows "regarding the pain of others," if only Susan Sontag had not used the title. She could have termed it her therapy session, like Andrea Fraser. Instead, she called her 2001 show "Double Game," and there is always a redoubling.

Like Sontag, Calle sees suffering as always belonging to individuals, with their stories as much as themselves in danger of annihilation. Also like Sontag, she admires and distrusts photography. It serves her as evidence of those stories for others. Like Sontag, too, she looks obsessively, and she suspects that an obsessive regard for others can mask a controlling care for oneself. As a group show about body art puts it, "Into Me / Out of Me." And yet she maintains almost as strong an attachment to romance and the human comedy as a photograph by Robert Doisneau.

Calle plays with privacy as much as new-media artists from Peter Sarkisian to Diller + Scofidio. She catalogs and violates intimacy more intensely than a database of user passwords. Even with the multimedia display of Take Care of Yourself, though, she mostly does so the hard way—with her still camera and a compulsive diligence. That effort spilled out in 2001 into all but a warehouse of photographs and objects from real or imagined performances. I almost wrote "virtual warehouse," and in a sense I might have been right.

Calle is as free with the privacy of others as with her own. In that 2001 installation, she lets on that she has followed a man to Venice and eaten food of different colors for each day of the week. She has, she says, collected every birthday present for a lifetime, and she definitely does not hide her age. For each year of her life, a museum-like glass case holds the strangely remote clutter. And for each year, the number of objects equals the age for their imagined gifting. She announced that she would be present herself the last day, for a performance consisting of taking suggestions for future performances.

Along with the glass cases, other performances spill out into a long, haphazard display of photographs and text. As one duly marches along, forcing oneself to read so many captions, one no longer has a clue as to what happened. Did a novelist really know her, and who was following whom? Did she really take suggestions on the last day of shows in London and Paris, or did she write all those lists herself?

I may recall longest one alleged suggestion from London: "Prepare for suicide and don't go through with it." Calle's career often lingers in the nexus of fate, politics, and personal possessions—self-serving, trivial, and haunting as Francesca Woodman. One enters each time a world of anonymous access and startling intimacy. Along with Facebook and last year's computer, one encounters the legacy of an all-too-familiar, postmodern age.

Graphic novels

Calle returned in 2005 to a favorite theme of her past performances, her own vulnerability to love and loss. On a trip abroad, a romance flared and died, she says. To put it past her, she has tried to focus on concern for others. She asks each day for someone's worst experience, and she evokes it with a combination of photographs and text. The sequence of these turns her gallery into a calendar of grieving. The intimations of "chick fiction" also link the work more closely to postmodern concerns for gender and appropriation than one might at first think.

More than perhaps anyone but Chantal Akerman or Barbara Bloom, Calle can use interiors to record lives. Her assemblages began well before the fashion for "graphic novels," and she must love how graphic can mean lurid as well as illustrated. And still one may balk. After so many years and so many similar performances, can Calle really veer that quickly between impulsiveness and care? Is she just playing out the clichés and self-involvement of chick fiction—or maybe the Hollywood vacation romance of the older woman in Summertime? Besides, did any of this happen?

At that very moment when the questions start to sink in, however, so does the 2005 installation. A performance can mean a deed, a ritual, and a fulfillment of a promise. Yet it can also mean theater and a work of the imagination. One may identify the proliferation of text with a legal document or one more fiction. One may ask why the photographs, like memorabilia, seem to depict everything but the one in pain. Calle called the 2005 show "Exquisite Pain," but whose?

The multiplicity of absences, including that of the storyteller herself, disturbs everything one knows up front. And the multiplicity of presences offered up front, especially hers, becomes unnerving. No doubt she could have found love only while traveling, in one more displacement of the self.

Calle has often made it difficult to discern confession from fiction—or a work from its audience response. Think of how she asked people in 2001 to suggest her next performance. (Could it have turned into this one?) If that lost lover ever existed, perhaps these works serve, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said about his poems, as "dead letters sent to dearest him who lives alas! away." Then again, maybe he did not, maybe they do not, and maybe no one is minding the dead-letter office.

Here the passivity of suffering and the activity of observing together underscore the fluid borders of art and the self. The many anonymous remembrances become the multiplicity and anonymity of the artist's—or viewer's—self-conception. For Sontag again, merely looking at, exploiting, and forgetting so many others under cover of empathy raises ethical issues. Calle's installation does, too, but not as finger-pointing, even at herself. This is what art does or at least what her art does, the work seems to say. Get used to it.

Collective fiction

Maybe in 2009, I can. Take Care of Yourself filled the French pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. It has become an artist's book as well, for still more readers perplexed by the opposite sex. As in the past, her private feelings blend into her haunting of others, and her confession blends into fiction. The French artist claims that Paul Auster based his puzzle-like fiction on her, and she in turn turned his character into installations. (He thanks her, as it happens, in Leviathan.) The fiction, however, is very much a woman's.

Once again, that fiction turns on the presence of other media alongside plain text. "And so I did" already points to the power of words. In the French, Calle followed her lover's recommendation au pied de la lettre, or literally—but also literally "at the foot of the letter," where his advice literally occurs. Jacques Lacan wrote of "the agency of the letter" in the workings of the mind. Here the email has very much its own agency, and it takes on at least a hundred lives of its own.

Everything turns on its anonymity, right down to its clichés and the absence of a date. One woman's project even looks for implications in its signature, that X, as if Calle had not obliterated an actual name. Who knows? Perhaps it never had "been meant for me."

This is not Tracey Emin, letting it all hang out, starting with her sex life and menstrual blood. The events could belong to any moment of Calle's past or entirely to her imagination. In turn, they produce new moments in the imagination of others, but she could have staged managed them as well.

Calle has produced a feminist work, but her feminism has to live with uncertainty. She has conjured up a community of women, and she insists on women as creative artists and professionals. Yet they, too, become comical and all but lost in a crowd. When the performances express strong emotions, they could be enacting the pain in the email, a woman's anguished response, or just an excess of feeling.

Is it too obvious that any performance acts out feelings, or is that too a cliché? One can see Calle as expressing the limits of any response—and the comedy or anguish that entails. She does not know how to respond, and she passes the inability onto a hundred others. No wonder she reduces actors to photographs, but the same limits apply to art. The many roles on display could well define art for a new millennium. From clown to petrochemical engineer, Calle has led many lives.

BACK to John's arts home page

Sophie Calle ran at Paula Cooper through March 21, 2001; July 22, 2005; and June 6, 2009.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME