Monday, 2 November 2009

Prenez soin de vous

Sophie Calle at the Whitechapel Gallery
Until Until 3 January

After being unceremoniously dumped, most women reach for the Kleenex and ice-cream and call around an army of militant friends – but not Sophie Calle. The French photographer, celebrated for her documentation of engineered social interactions, instead opted for an altogether more public affair. Asking 107 women to respond to a heartbreaking email sent to her by her lover ending the relationship, she then transformed the results into an exhibition for the 2007 Venice Biennale.

The premier of the English language version of Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself) is just part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s larger Calle retrospective. The entire downstairs space is filled with photographs, films and physical relics, where the seemingly empowered women have used their professional skills to interpret her ex-lover’s sentiments. A film of a soprano voice belting extreme grief with operatic facial gymnastics sits alongside the framed and bullet riddled email. Each usage of the word ‘love’ has been precisely targeted and eliminated.

The scale and variety of the responses is overwhelming. Varying from an unemotional accountant’s tottings up of the total assets and total liabilities to the melodramatic performance of actress Miranda Richardson with her seemingly unimpressed tabby, the work as a whole demonstrates different and complex responses to loss.

As a piece of work, it cleverly functions much like a grieving woman. Surrounding herself with a circle of mirror identities, Calle almost compulsively over-analyses the email’s every word to the point of obsession. Except from the initial missive, there is no opportunity for the offending party to explain himself. He is now, a separate body without a voice, detached and internalised.

The exhibition is at times cruel and self-deprecating, such as when an employee of the LibĂ©ration news desk refuses to publish the email on premise that the “letter interests nobody”. But many of the interpretations – Brenda the parrot’s beaky destruction of the email for example – are humorous. It’s selfishness and sense of revenge element may make many viewers uncomfortable, but it is this raw honesty that makes Take Care of Yourself a confession worth hearing.

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