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Take care of yourself

Maria Jäärats (2/2012)

Maria Jäärats on French contemporary art superstar Sophie Calle’s solo exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall.

 

30. XI 2011–8. I 2012

Tallinn Art Hall.

 

As a child from a bilingual family, I was immensely fascinated by a game according to which you had to repeat a word until it lost its meaning. The feeling of ease, as the meaning of the word separated from its sound, and how repeating the shell of the word revealed new content from subconscious connections, was simply amazing. A feeling of triumph. The evocation of the artistic equivalent of that semantic saturation can be taken as the essence of Sophie Calle’s "Prenez soin de vous" (Take Care of Yourself).

Sophie Calle started working as an artist at the end of the 1970s, when fictionalism and Harald Szeemann’s curatorial practice of "private mythologies" announced a comeback for subjectivity and the subject and getting over the "death of the artist" complex. Starting from her first artist books from 1978–1979 using elements of the diary and photo novel formats, the bulk of her work has played with narratives (often investigative or autobiographical) and the idea of a narrative as such. Curator and critic Christine Macel has said that she combines the narrative and the photograph so that it is neither an auto-fiction nor a photo novel, but rather an innovative combination of the factual narrative with photographs and elements of fiction.1

Calle has been accused of excessive autobiography and egomania. One of the resonant comparisons that I have stumbled upon on the internet described her as “the Marcel Duchamp of emotional dirty laundry”. Calle has responded to such accusations with irony, naming her 2003–04 retrospective at the Pompidou Centre "M’as-tu vu(e)?" (Did you see me?)––a slang expression for someone that is vain and ostentatious.

The incidents in Calle’s own life have indeed provided the impetus for her work. For example, in her very first work "Filatures parisiennes" (Spinning Paris) (1978/1979) she followed and photographed strangers on the street. She has said that she started following strangers because she had nothing better to do with her life: "Establishing rules and following them is very calming. When you are stalking someone, you don’t have to worry about where to eat. He will take you to his favourite restaurant. The decision will be made for you."2 This succinctly summarizes Calle’s working method: she doesn’t exhibit her life as art, but rather searches for new scenarios to live through, refusing to surrender to the boredom of life. In this way, she plays her role––as artist and character––in tandem. Reputedly, Calle is a prototype for the main character Maria Turner in the novel "Leviathan" (1992) by Paul Auster. The book motivated projects like "The Chromatic Diet" (1997), where just like the character, she eats food of one certain colour each day for a week in order to bring herself and Maria closer together; and "Days Under the Sign of B, C & W" (1998), where for the same reason she spent four days doing things that started with a certain letter (for example, B-day as a Blonde Bimbo) and documented them. This kind of symbolic identification with the character signifies the peak of Calle’s games with fictional characters.

In "Prenez soin de vois", her position as an author differs from her previous works. She falls back on the role of an initiator, or in her own words she loses her voice, and "for the first time lets others speak". Calle’s deliberate non-presence as a character of an unfortunate love story is obvious, manifesting itself most clearly in the video of a family counselling session, in which Calle remains terse and distant as she provides answers for the counsellor. Calle’s exit from the role of a character is conscious, the transmutation from a defeated protagonist to a puppeteer of the project is for therapeutic purposes. Thus, a coping mechanism.

"Prenez soin de vois" was completed in 2007 for the Venice Biennale. Calle chose artist Daniel Buren to curate. He helped her adjust her format and make it more free and playful; however, Calle’s literariness and certain "bookishness" remained in tact, and this also prevails in the large room at the Tallinn Art Hall. Although "reading through" the large room is quite exhausting, the separation of the installation’s two main opposites—the video works and the text works with photographs—makes it possible to create different atmospheres in the rooms which soften the large-scale effect of the exhibition. On the other hand, I did not capture the significance of exhibiting photographs in the unlit rear hall (however, the videos on the back walls of the same room "worked" well).

In the opening paragraph I spoke about the artistic equivalent of saturation that Calle’s installation evokes. Whether we refer to her method as auto-fiction or not, she takes hold of the banality of life (a parting of lovers is a personal tragedy, but breaking up with someone in an e-mail is quite a cliché), and more specifically, the last sentence of the break-up letter––prenez soin de vous, "take care of yourself"3––and decides to take care of herself in the best way she knows. She transforms the banality of life into an art project, and discovers in the potential of that process a chance to outpace the banality. The transmutation of life into art happens, just as in the word game I described earlier, with her characteristic investigative thoroughness; Calle sends a letter to people of different professions for dissection until the letter is ultimately destroyed, and instead, an archive full of material––declamations, interpretations and autopsy reports—emerges. Reality has been replaced with references that do not refer back to the original; the vainness of life has become art. It is not surprising that the outpacing of the banality of life by hijacking it in "Prenez soin de vois" twins with Jean Baudrillard’s theory of art’s intrusion into everyday life, and thereby, becomes null and void, especially in one of his more hopeful reasonings:

We have here the whole duplicity of contemporary art: laying claim to worthlessness [la nullite], insignificance and non-meaning; aiming for worthlessness, when it is already worthless; aiming for non-meaning, when it already signifies nothing; claiming to achieve superficiality in superficial terms. Now, nullity is a secret quality which not everyone can aspire to. Insignificance––true insignificance, the victorious defiance of meaning, the stripping away of meaning, the art of the disappearance of meaning––is an exceptional quality possessed by a few rare works––works which never claim that quality.4

Maria Jäärats has an MA degree from the Institute of Art History of the Estonian Academy of Arts.

1 Christine Macel, The Author Issue in the Work of Sophie Calle. – Unfinished. Sophie Calle, M’as-tu vue. Münhen: Prestel, 2008, pp 20–21.
2 Stuart Jeffries, Sophie Calle: stalker, stripper, sleeper, spy. – The Guardian 23. IX 2009 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/sep/23/sophie-calle)
3 By the way, in the same couples counseling video that I mentioned before, Calle admitted that it was the formally addressed hollow and patronizing last sentence that made her act. I wonder if the formal aspect didn’t seem significant enough to the organizers of the exhibition in the Tallinn Art Hall or why did they translate the title "Prenez soin de vous" as informal "Hoia end. Ole tubli."
4 Jean Baudrillard, The Art Conspiracy. – Screened out. London, New York: Verso, 2005, pp 183.

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