by David M. Roth
"It would be the worst kind of masquerade to prolong a situation now when, you know as well as I do, it has become irreparable by the standards of the very love I have for you and you have for me, a love which is now forcing me to be so frank with you, as final proof of what happened between us and will always be unique. I would have liked things to have turned out differently. Take care of yourself."
— excerpt from X's letter to the artist
Woe to the lover who crosses Sophie Calle. In 2004, or thereabouts, Calle, France’s best-known conceptual artist, received a break-up letter via email. What followed was an epic and very public act of revenge: a text/photo/video installation called Take Care of Yourself (2004-07), named for letter’s sign-off line. The author is identified only as X. Whether her ex-lover marked it that way or whether Calle did so to protect his identity is unknown. Either way, it’s an apt indicator of the evisceration he receives at the hands of Calle and her collaborators.
For the piece, which debuted in the French Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, she asked 107 women to respond to the letter. Their collective reaction, laid out in text panels, a cartoon,a bar chart, a loopy diagram that in another context could serve as a guide to sunken treasure, and a great many still photos and videos (including one of a screeching parrot, who, when served the letter, shreds and eats it), forms the centerpiece of Missing, a mini-survey that sprawls across three buildings of the Fort Mason Center campus.
Organized by San Francisco-based Ars Citizen, the exhibition sails past key two highlights of a 40-year career in which the artist famously invaded (and made public) the lives of strangers: Suite Venitienne (1979) and Address Book (1983). Nevertheless, the exhibition is billed as “a comprehensive approach.” A more accurate description would be “selections from the past decade,” since the earliest of the four works on view dates to 2007. Still, you needn’t probe the nooks and crannies of Calle’s oeuvre to get the gist of it; a little goes a long way toward illuminating the unique textual and visual approach she takes to examining love, death, memory and loss. Missing serves up powerful doses of each, intermingled in ways that demonstrate the artist’s willingness to her place own life (and the lives of others) under a public microscope and present them in ways that engage the mind and the senses – a rarity in conceptual art where text-stuffed vitrines coupled with photo documentation of distant events are all too often the norm.
At a glance, Take Care of Yourself seems to fit the mold since it contains reams of text. Wade into it and you quickly become engrossed. The pull comes, in large measure, from the letter itself, which you're encourage to read before entering the exhibit. Larded with false contrition, blame shifting, delusional thinking, weasel words, veiled (and overt) narcissism and a lot of very strained syntax, it lowers expectations for what might be made of it. Calle’s army of analysts upends those expectations. They transform X’s beg-off into a literary event, a firing squad of triangulating voices that together, demonstrate the degree to which words really do matter. What amazes is the sheer variety of approaches taken by those who take X to task. If you walk in, thinking as I did, that you’ll be nonplussed by so much linguistic dissection, be prepared to have your head spun.
A criminal psychologist writes: “He is an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous and/or a great writer.” A psychic, after consulting the tarot, concludes: “What is hidden in this letter is worse than what it says. It is the letter of a man who is desperate and threatened….” A judge, citing sections of the penal code, opines: “The letter you received offers a reasonable chance at seeing X condemned by the court both for fraud and for deceit…” Another legal-minded writer frames X’s missive as “the negotiation and performance of a banal lease.” A commentator whose profession I failed to note appraises X’s wish “for things to have turned out differently” as follows: “Yes of course: Blame it on Mom, the Priest, the President,
Madonna, his reading of Don Juan, the riots in the suburbs and who knows what else.” About X’s mangled syntax, a Latinist says: “The gentleman has got himself rather tied up in the play of negations.” They are, she determines with palpable exasperation, “absurd and impossible to render.” A police captain chalks up X’s behavior to demographic advantage: Paris has more men than women, so the men do as they please.
This multi-pronged deconstruction would be stupefying were it presented solely as text. Calle sidesteps that pitfall. She frames each text differently and pairs it with an environmental portrait of the author, interspersing forensic touches, like diagrams that chart repeated phrases and the number of words in each sentence of X’s email missive. Additionally, the artist activates the interior of the room (Gallery 308) by running a long table up the middle. She fills it with nearly as many texts as photos, including one of an origami piece, made by a graphic designer in the shape of a striking cobra, indicating the direction the inquiry is headed. Enlivening the exhibit further, the artist populates a long wall with a grid of 33 videos in which an international cast of well-known performers (including Laurie Anderson, Miranda Richardson, Feist and the late
Jeanne Moreau) apear, offering dramatic responses. Each of the videos is programmed to behave like a website thumbnail, running silently on a small monitor before rotating onto a big screen at the center, at which point their soundtracks become audible. Some of those same performers reappear in a montage of still shots packed floor-to-ceiling along a narrow corridor near the front of the exhibit. They depict, in varying degrees, anger, despair and incomprhension. And, in a room at the end of that same hallway you'll find seven more “reaction” videos, the most memorable being one of a ballerina, who, after reading the letter, pirouettes backward at high speed and collapses onto a pile of leggings and shoes — all in the space of a few seconds.
The portrait of X that emerges from this avalanche of professional opinion (and performance) is that of a hopeless miscreant, a man whose inclinations fall somewhere between Casanova and Rasputin. Needless to say, this isn’t journalism. Nor should it be. But a feint in that direction would have helped. Once the thrill of all the analytical gymnatics wore off, I was dogged by a question: What was Calle’s role in the X fiasco? About this we learn little. Speaking to an off-camera therapist, the artist wonders aloud whether an agreed-upon inequity – one that allowed Calle to maintain friendships with her ex’s, but forbid X from seeing Calle if they broke up – caused the rift. It’s an honest moment of self-reflection, but it passes quickly. As for other dissenting voices we hear only one, that of novelist Christine Angot. She warns Calle: “The choir you have formed around the letter is the choir of death.” Convening it, she asserts, signals a desire to “transform men into women.”
And so, what began as an exhilarating act of female solidarity powered by deep reading ends up exposing a problem much larger than the foibles of X. It’s the unholy harmony that arises when too many sound-alike voices form a “choir.” Nevertheless, Take Care of Yourself stands as a masterpiece, a high point in Calle's illustrious career.
The other major work in the exhibition is Rachel Monique (2007), an elaborate and at turns moving tribute to the artist’s mother, Monique Sindler, a film editor who died in 2006. It’s staged in Fort Mason’s chapel, and it features, as its centerpiece, a video of her last 11 minutes of life. To watch it I had to fight back the feeling that I was about to see something I shouldn’t, that something being a body en route to becoming a corpse, the banal difference between the two states demarcated by the intrusion of a hand taking a pulse. As with all memorials, the significance of this one rests with the life it memorializes. For that we are directed to a scrapbook built around Sindler’s photos and diary entries, copies of which can be found in back of the pews where hymnals normally reside. From it we learn that Rachel Monique — the title pairs of two of Sindler’s seven assumed monikers — was vain, self-pitying, pretentious and promiscuous, but also brainy, articulate and entertaining – someone you’d want to know. Despite the preening self-regard that drips from nearly every page, Sindler is, quite obviously, unfulfilled. One ambition she hoped to realize with the bequeathal of her effects was to become the subject of her daughter’s art. Given the up-and-down nature of their relationship and the richness of Sindler’s life and yearnings, you can see why Calle went to such lengths to grant her mother that wish; but the takeaway is slenderer than one might hope for. The installation, despite its many imaginative elements, including a full-scale replica of a taxidermied giraffe, prompts us to reflect more on the life of the diary’s author than on matters of life and death. No doubt, that is how Ms. Sindler would have wanted it.
Two other pieces, The Last Image (2010) and Voir la mer (2011), are installed in the Firehouse. The first documents the last recollected images of people blinded by accidents or disease. Each one is uniquely terrifying, making it easy to empathize with the victims. Not so with Voir la mer, a series of videos about people in Istanbul who’ve supposedly never seen the sea. They stand at water’s edge, their backs to the camera. When they turn toward us, we see their faces close-up, their eyes watery, their minds quite obviously blown by the experience. From this we're supposed to feel some sort of sympathetic epiphany. But there’s a problem: The city of Istanbul is surrounded on three sides by water, and the artist doesn’t explain what prevented these people from seeing it. This isn't a fatal flaw, but it does undercut the power of the piece by making you wonder whether the premise is real or invented.
Oddly, these shortcomings do little to detract from the overall experience of Missing. Each piece functions as part of the ensemble, and together they leave you thinking about things that matter: life, death and everything that comes in between. Calle’s work arises from deep personal need, and that is always the source of the most powerful art.
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Sophie Calle: “Missing” @ Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture through August 20, 2017. Note: Admission is free. However, entry to “Take Care of Yourself” requires advance tickets, available online.
A companion exhibition, “Sophie Calle: My mother, my cat, my father, in that order,” runs @ Fraenkel Lab through August 26, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.