By Carianne Noga, Artist
Sophie Calle is a conceptual artist, a photographer-meets-editorialist. Sophie Calle is a chic, mysterious, middle-aged French woman who sometimes smokes cigarettes and can be caught wearing sunglasses indoors. She is internationally famous and at times borders on infamous. And since hearing her speak about her work at Washington University’s Steinberg Auditorium last month, I have observed perhaps the most vital trait of this creative femme-fatale: she is funny as hell.
Currently on view at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is Calle’s sprawling collaborative installation titled “Take Care of Yourself,” which has as its conceptual epicenter a breakup email sent to Calle by her former lover. The ex ends the letter and their relationship with the phrase, “take care of yourself,” and Calle’s resulting project was her attempt to do just that. The artist invited dozens of women to lend their unique talents and skills, to help her interpret the letter.
Occupying the vast expanse of the Pulitzer’s Main Gallery—an enormous open space—Calle’s work spans end to end and then some. One of her collaborators, a curator, submitted a stack of take-away facsimiles of the one-page email, so that each visitor might have their own intimate encounter with the words at hand. Around the corner, tucked away, a family mediator facilitates a tragically one-sided conversation between Calle and a limp copy of the letter propped up in a chair beside her. Further into the Main Gallery, past another several contributions, is a short, looping video of Brenda the parrot tearing a miniature copy of the dreaded email into bits and then having a neurotic fit. Opposite her is a bank of monitors, cycling through videos of still more responses to the letter. And trickling out from the Cube Gallery are the sounds of the jingling bells of an Indian dancer and shots echoing from a sharpshooter’s rifle. The space is visually and aurally full, taken over by an artfully choreographed circus of: editing, dancing, acting, singing, studying, yelling, judging, shooting, and squawking. And while the Pulitzer typically forgoes the museum tradition of labeling artworks, in this case this work comes with its own: ‘Translator,’ ‘Proofreader,’ ‘Nursery School Teacher,’ ‘Teenager,’ ‘Editor,’ ‘Historian,’ ‘Actress,’ and many more; the various titles of Calle’s collaborators. So in this exhibition the gallery is not only very full with art, it is also full with the people Calle invited to her project.
Some critics have commented on a possibly negligent irony undermining the overall project, that while Calle has gathered over a hundred talented women to impugn the world’s worst boyfriend, the piece also serves to further indulge his supposed selfish and narcissistic character. Sadly though for this man, whose words have been immortalized in the work, it seems he has still not been rendered present before us. For all the intrigue and productivity of the reading, rereading, writing, rewriting, and responding to his words, none of these women have drawn him out from the shadows of his own writing. (Did she forget to invite a snake charmer?)
I first heard of this work only months after it made waves at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and it served as my introduction to Calle’s work in general. But for all practical purposes, until it recently arrived at the Pulitzer, it only existed in my mind. For five years I had this clever and perfectly-abstracted idea tumbling around in my head: “girl meets boy, boy royally screws girl, so girl’s 107 friends turn on boy and gleefully mock him.” I thought it was very funny, if a little simplistic and immature. Nevertheless, I thought I had gotten the joke! I appreciated its one-liner appeal: he says “take care of yourself,” and in a witty turn she not only does that, but she also “takes care of” him, so to speak. Only, I didn’t feel a real weight to the piece…until now.
Since I have seen this project in person, and I have seen her, Sophie Calle—the person—I have seen something I never knew would be so important in shaping my true appreciation of her work. I have seen not just her sense of humour as it permeates her work and her way of speaking about it, but I now have the understanding that it is quite a dark sense of humour. At her lecture I chuckled when an audience member asked Calle her reason for becoming an artist, and she replied, “To seduce my father, of course.” The audience was full of chuckles. Another question followed, “Were you successful?” She saucily shot back, “Ah, in no time at all!” Again, we laughed at her joke, though unsure how funny it really was. Her father, a curator, supported her as a young woman, but she has acknowledged that she never felt loved enough. So it seems reasonable that her inclination to create art (particularly, the way in which she does) comes from a place of perpetual unfulfillment.
I recall something else Calle mentioned in her discussion of other past works, that she often finds her process is like creating a picture of an absence. For instance, in the project “The Address Book,” the artist found a lost address book, copied its contents, returned the book, then contrived a conceptual portrait of its owner by interviewing his various contacts. And in “The Hotel,” she snooped through the personal effects of hotel guests, photographing certain items for another kind of connect-the-dots portrait. Inversely, in the project “Take Care of Yourself,” she starts with a great deal of intimate knowledge of her beloved, but knowledge which has been confounded by his letter—with its many words left unsaid, its many flaws, and its devastating erasure of her lover, the person she once knew.
To confront the presence of this new and unusually bewildering absence she consults other women to fill in the blanks. And so we see, Sophie Calle can take care of herself. She has shown and done as much through the execution of this monumental project, not to mention the many years of her life and successful career which precede it. However, the real humour of this piece is the cummulative effect it has. By inviting this impressive group of women to participate, she has effectively circled the wagons. The real center of gravity in this piece is not the letter, it is Calle herself. She need not worry to take care of herself, when she has a veritable army of caretakers surrounding her.
But to take it one step further, according to Calle, by the devastation this letter enacted she did not feel herself strong enough to reply with words of her own. Sure, her creative hand is visible in the curation of the work’s multitude of elements, and she is firmly directing the whole production. And her visage is even included in the work, if only in one small corner of the project, in the family mediator’s video. But she is best reflected in each of these women; in her life she is the actress, the editor, the translator, the mediator, and she is the head-banging, looping parrot. She is this whole army of women. She is one of these women, as much as she is articulated by the network of social and professional connections they imply. Where she felt herself gone missing, down a well of despair, she has elegantly redrawn herself by connecting the dots between these women.
So it is now occurs to me what the punchline of the “joke” really is. Ask anyone with “daddy issues”—with perpetual unfulfillment comes the constant risk of self-dissolution. The risk of falling in love often feels the same as the risk of losing oneself. In this light the piece seems no longer to be about the absence of her lover, it is about the absence of herself. I imagine, as Calle read the last line of her lover’s dismissal, “take care of yourself,” she might have simply wondered “…self?”