Review: 'Take Care of Yourself' by Sophie Calle at the French Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2007

Submitted as the winning entry to the 2007 Frieze Writers' prize for new art critics.

‘Take care of yourself, yeah?’ is probably the last, and least sincere instruction made by those on the point of concluding a successful romantic disentanglement. Intended to instate a more platonically-based relation, in fact this throwaway line more realistically functions as the final signifier that your rapidly-becoming-ex lover has had the audacity to absolve himself of any responsibility for your welfare. Most of us, in our impotent fury, reach for whatever crutch it takes (gin, large bags of crisps, promiscuity) to get over it. For Sophie Calle, however, the resultant confusion is the basis for a project.

Having received a break-up email concluding with this sentiment, Calle found it so difficult to take in that she employed 107 women to interpret or transcribe the text using their various professional skills. The interpretations range from more direct bureaucratic processes, such as analysing the letter for legal implications or the correction of grammatical and spelling mistakes; through to more performative responses such as a ballerina ‘dancing’ the letter and a parakeet beakily tearing it up. The presentation is highly seductive, with each printed/annotated set of conclusions configured both within a framed, enlarged print, and also available for closer inspection as the original ‘documentation’ laminated in lead-framed Perspex. The bourgeois presentation succeeds with the prim, whimsical aesthetics of paper bureaucracy, and avoids that sensation of ‘I’ll buy the book’ that has been the downfall of many other documentation-based projects – despite Calle’s own assertion that she is generally much more comfortable working in book format. Those correspondents whose responses are more suited to video (mostly performance based) are presented in one darkened space by three large screens and in another as a whole bank of many smaller screens running simultaneously.

Like a princess obliged to seek a suitor, Calle had been unsure of the necessity for a curator and had considered and ultimately rejected the various bright young things suggested to her. She eventually decided simply to submit the role to an open application process via three French art publications. Her stable-boy prince turned out to be Daniel Buren, whose ambivalence towards the growth of the role of curator is well known. Paying further attention to this strategy as part of the work would undermine both Buren’s wariness of curatorial ‘authorship’, and the thematic sovereignty of the piece. Buren, having reconfigured the interior walls and incorporated the peristyle to create seven rooms, appears to have worked largely along the more conventional curatorial lines of spatial arrangement to serve the interpretative experience of the viewer. However, on a more general level the recruitment method does find some echoes in Calle’s career – the relinquishing of semantic control by opening a conduit for the anonymous to become the intimate.

Within the show, this tendency is emphasised with a photographic portrait of various participating women, each reading the letter in question. The considered, luminous staginess of the photographs strongly evokes the basic feminist notion of ‘sisterhood’, despite all participants being paid professionals. It’s impossible not to draw some form of gendered meaning from Calle’s involvement of only female correspondents (were it the other way round, it could possibly go unremarked upon, but that’s an issue for another day). The persistent sense of female camaraderie is also achieved through the sheer entertainment value there is in seeing 107 women more or less humiliate a man – it’s not exactly fair play, but reading a journalist’s list of reasons why the letter is not newsworthy enough to be featured by her paper, or looking over the pedantry of a proofreader’s corrections, does have a cumulative comic effect. Calle overperforms, and thereby lampoons, male privilege by taking a man’s text very, very seriously; to be fair, it’s taken far more seriously than he would ever advocate.

It is, of course, the ultimate revenge. The processing of this letter in so many ways makes it into a satisfying semantic machine, whereby so many forms and meanings are extracted from one private communication. One feminist assertion holds that all (107) semiotic processes are constructed within the bounds of patriarchy, and cannot therefore fully express an understanding not tainted by male domination; if this is so, Calle’s attempt nevertheless seems more playful than futile.