When the French artist's lover dumped her by email, she turned her life into art
The first time Sophie Calle entered a contemporary art gallery it wasn’t to see another artist’s work, but to exhibit her own. The work in question was Les Dormeurs (The Sleepers), and it became, almost by accident, Calle’s first work as an artist.
The Sleepers was exhibited in Paris in 1979. Like most of her other projects over the past 30 years, it’s composed of photographs and text and involves an intimate dialogue with strangers. Originally conceived as something of a ‘distraction’ rather than strictly as an artwork, she invited 24 strangers to sleep in her empty bed – not all at once, but singly, in eight-hour shifts and over the course of nine days. The deal was that she would ask her guests to tell her something about themselves and then photograph them every hour as they slept. She’d also ask each of them how old they’d been when they’d last wet the bed.
Calle has said that the idea came to her after she began surreptitiously following strangers on the streets of Paris and photographing them, like a private detective. Initially, she had no purpose other than to relieve her loneliness: she was in her mid-twenties, had no job and few friends and was at a loose end, having returned to the city of her birth after several years travelling abroad. This psychogeographical dérive around Paris was, she has said, a way of reacquainting herself with the rhythms of the city and the lives of its inhabitants. The idea for the work was planted when an acquaintance asked if she could use Calle’s bed.
But the artist can’t really claim to have been a complete ingénue. Her father, an oncologist, was an avid collector of contemporary art, and she has always said that the reason she became an artist in the first place was because she wanted to ‘seduce’ him. Perhaps it’s because French intellectual life is so steeped in the tradition of Lacan and psychoanalysis, that French female artists often display an obsession with Father. One thinks, for example, of Louise Bourgeois and her shock at discovering her beloved father in the garden shed with the governess, an incident that has informed Bourgeois’s work for the past 70 years.
Calle’s father supported his daughter’s accidental career. He made clear his disapproval only once: he asked her not to publish her 1989 book La Striptease (The Striptease), which documented her activities as a stripper at a club in the Pigalle. This time she chose to play the rebellious daughter and went ahead and published. Like much of the female body-related performance art of the period, her apprenticeship in striptease can be interpreted as a cleverly subversive feminist action, though her real motives remain somewhat vague, and probably have as much to do with the need to earn a living as it does with gender theory.
The striptease images aren’t included in Calle’s first UK retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, perhaps because they lack the layered subtlety of her subsequent work, reproducing instead some of the clichés of feminist art of the Seventies. And it may well have been the crassness of its execution – as much as its sexual content – to which Calle’s father was objecting.
You will, however, find The Sleepers, beside a selection of other works that leads the viewer through each decade of her life as a practising artist. These powerfully resonant projects – one journalist amusingly described Calle as the “Marcel Duchamp of emotional dirty laundry” – are mostly presented through small-format photographs. All are accompanied by text couched in Calle’s elegant, spare, evocative prose. Her writing (and here one should also praise the translation) is quite different to the desiccated ‘objective’ documentary style of most conceptual presentation, with Andrea Tarsia, the curator of the Whitechapel show, saying that her sparse prose reminds him of Raymond Carver.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself), the ambitious and lavishly staged film, photo, performance and text work that was the star attraction at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and which occupies the whole of the ground-floor gallery. Presented here in its first English translation, Take Care of Yourself is aurally and visually sumptuous, with high-quality images and music. But it is the text, as well as its clever deconstruction, that draws you in and sustains your attention. You might say that the piece is one part ludic French theory and two parts chick-lit. Alternatively, one could see it as a thrillingly open-ended detective story by a female Paul Auster, the American author who is Calle’s best-known collaborator.
Take Care of Yourself unpicks (“eviscerates” might be a better description) a circumloquacious email sent to Calle by a lover telling of his intention to leave her. It’s written in an introspective and self-consciously literary style, but is also blandly predictable, an elegant variant of an old line: “It’s not you, it’s me.” And it ends with the four dreary valedictory words of the title.
It seems it didn’t take Calle long to work out exactly how she would “take care of herself”. By turning life into art. She sent her lover’s message to 107 women working in a range of professions – a philosopher, a psychiatrist, a lexicographer, a crossword-setter, a psychologist, a lawyer and a Talmudic scholar among them – asking that each to analyse the text from their own professional standpoint.
Some assess the departing lover’s character with pitiless scorn, others deflate it with wit and playfulness. The psychologist, for example, concludes that the lover “is an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically damaged and/or a great writer”. The lexicographer, my favourite, stitches together phrases from the text with quotations taken from classic novels. Thus Jane Austen laments: “You really are a very sad girl and do not know how to take care of yourself.”
Take Care of Yourself erects a towering babel of feminine scorn, but the effect is closer to one of comic deflation of female rage and male ego. The work may have started off as a substitute for therapy, but is better understood as a kind of sublimation in the purest sense, much more than merely confessional.
Other works in the exhibition show Calle submitting her will to that of others in ritualised game-playing. Paul Auster gives her a list of actions to perform in New York in order to make the city a nicer, brighter place: she keeps a note of the quota of smiles given and smiles received. On the turning of her Tarot cards, a clairvoyant instructs her to travel to a small French town and delight in the people she meets and the coincidences she observes. And she asks strangers in the Bronx to lead her to a place of their choosing in their run-down neighbourhood. “I like being in control and I like losing control. Following the rules of others is restful. A way not to have to think – to be trapped in a game and to follow it,” she says.
But the most powerful work in this exhibition is the quietest. Like Calle’s best work, it is about loss and absence. Pas pu saisir la mort (Couldn’t Capture Death, 2007) features a video of her dying mother, in bed, as the artist enumerates a list of last actions her mother performed or prepared: “a last party”, “a last poem”, “a last journey”. It is a simple, profoundly beautiful piece, a reminder that a last breath – taken, in this instance, “somewhere between 3:02 and 3:13” – is “impossible to capture,” because it is the moment the person (the spirit) leaves the body.