Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’

Take Care Of Yourself Sophie Calle

‘Take care of yourself’ is a tender phrase, one you might expect to hear voiced instructively by concerned older relatives; however, as the title of artist Sophie Calle’s recently translated project it reeks of a pained sarcasm.  Taken from the sign-off of an unexpected break up letter, ‘Take Care of Your Self’ is a journey through the long process of coming to terms with heartache and loss. But its true interest lies beneath the casual voyeurism of observing a woman’s reaction to being dumped and on the level of basic human relationships.

Born in Paris in 1953, Calle has built her career on an often uncomfortable ability to document and challenge the psyches of her subjects. Through the use of photography, film and even text she has explored the space between public and private lives.  The current exhibition ‘Talking to Strangers’ features some of her earlier work, including a collaboration with American novelist Paul Auster, but it is ‘Take Care of Yourself’ that adds a poignancy to the collection.

At the start of the piece Calle asked 107 women from different professions to interpret a break-up email sent from her ex using their own critically developed viewpoints.  Responses were gathered on paper and film and ranged from the heartbreakingly simple response of a schoolgirl, through lawyers, head-hunters, lexicographers to –bizarrely- a parrot called Julia, who demonstrated her scorn for the man in question by noisily consuming the letter.

The initial mutterings of fellow (female, I should add) observers ranged from ‘It’s so sad’ to ‘Women think too much’, continuing the decade old response to feminist art – that it is slightly tragic and hopelessly self absorbed. Men too will no doubt be a little miffed that the installation seems to have been created ‘by women for women’. But these reactions are missing the point.

It is the often untraversable gulf between men and women and, more to the point, people that is illustrated so candidly by Calle. The search for meaning in the action and words of others is a pursuit that has created far more questions than it has answered. Just as any woman might do, Calle has turned to those around her (in this case subjects of an art project rather than simply friends or colleagues) to try and interpret the baffling actions of another person. The result is an even wider array of conclusions and advice- a criminologist instructs the artist to ‘avoid this man at all costs’ while an author asks her why she is spending so much time thinking about the writer when he is clearly finished with her.

But none of these women knows the author and the only voice worth trusting, in the end, is Calle’s own; the reader for which the letter is intended. Roland Barthes famous proclamations about the death of the author are turned on their head – the text and the author are undeniably linked. Perhaps any feminist claims for the exhibition would lie in this territory, rather than in clichéd and readily dismissed ideas of female solidarity.

Consider this the 108th response to Calle’s work; one more female voice to add to the cacophony of interpretation that makes up this rather successful and critically acclaimed art project. If you want to view the other 107 first hand, then the exhibition is running at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London until the 3rd of January. Take a single friend.

(Image from ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ by Sophie Calle 2007, via the Whitechapel gallery)

By: Danielle Lawson, 13.12.2009 | Comments (0)
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