Sophie Calle’s first UK retrospective is an epic feat of emotional engineering. Her work is packed with humour, heartbreak, and the frustrations of life, and the viewer has little choice but to experience all of these as they engage with the pieces on display. The show spreads over two floors of the Whitechapel Gallery; the ground floor has been completely taken over by Calle’s English version of Take Care of Yourself, whilst two rooms on the second floor house smaller but equally poignant photographic, text and installation works, taking the viewer on a veritable journey of discovery through the ideas and workings of the Parisian artist.
Take Care of Yourself, which was a highlight of the 2007 Venice Biennale, is a project based around an email Calle received from a lover, explaining somewhat philosophically why their relationship could not continue and finishing “take care of yourself”. As part of the grieving process the artist asked 107 women of different professions, from accountants to journalists, to interpret the email as they would any other text encountered within their working life. This mass analysis resulted in a remarkably varied collection of responses; reassurance, logic, confusion, and, unsurprisingly, defamation of the perpetrator are all present. (This piece is not anti-men but it is certainly anti-this man.) There is a lot of rejection in this room, and anyone whose relationship wounds are still fresh will feel this more than anyone, but there is also a sense of purpose, of moving forward, and of the potential for great art when the artist is prepared to lay herself bare to such a degree. However, the piece also raises questions about the role of the artist within art; the conception behind the work is all Calle’s, as is the arrangement of the women’s responses alongside their portraits, but the visual elements that make up the piece – the letters, the video pieces, the songs, the drawings – are not. Perhaps in this case the artist should be seen as the conductor, not the orchestra, but there is something not entirely satisfactory about the artist not being first violin.
Sophie Calle does not offer the viewer an easy ride. The majority of the works on display require you to read every word and examine every photograph to fully comprehend their purpose. It is also very engaging work; you want to understand why the artist would put herself at the command of a clairvoyant, how she could invite people to sleep in her bed, and why so many of her pieces rely on interaction with strangers. But the more you delve into Calle’s world the more you understand pieces like Take Care of Yourself. The behaviour of people, their characters, their foibles, their ways of thinking, these are the sources of interest for this artist, and her work is the richer for it; suddenly it doesn’t matter as much that not every word is Calle’s, as by bringing others into her projects she highlights the humour and mysteries within human nature.
Her approach is perhaps best demonstrated by Journey to California (2003), the result of a correspondence with the Californian artist Josh Greene. Having broken up with a girlfriend Greene wrote to Calle asking to spend the rest of his mourning period in her bed in Paris. Being already in a relationship, Calle sent Greene her bed, to be returned once the healing process was complete. The resulting installation, consisting of a bed packaged for transportation, a series of photographs of the bed in both locations and the sequence of emails between Calle and Green highlights the vision at the core of Calle’s work; to harness the serendipity inherent within the interaction of strangers.
This is perhaps best demonstrated by Unfinished (2005), a film that tracks Calle’s efforts over many years to define our relationship with money after receiving a collection of surveillance photographs of customers at an ATM, in which she expresses her frustration as idea after idea fails to bring her an answer. The artist is ultimately unsuccessful here, but her film offers an insight into the thought process behind works that seek to deal with complex issues, and this in itself is a triumph.
-- Alex Field
All images Courtesy the Artist and the Whitechapel Gallery
Images from Top to Bottom:(Sophie Calle, Etoile dancer at the Opéra de Paris, Marie-Agnès Gillot, detail Take care of yourself, 2007. © ADAGP Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris / Miami; Arndt & Partner. Berlin / Zurich; Koyanagi, Tokyo; Gallery Paula Cooper, NY ; Sophie Calle, Police captain, F. G., detail Take care of yourself, 2007. © ADAGP Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris / Miami; Arndt & Partner, Berlin / Zurich; Koyanagi, Tokyo; Gallery Paula Cooper, NY; Sophie Calle, Detail from Berck, 2005, © ADAGP Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris / Miami; Arndt & Partner, Berlin / Zurich; Koyanagi, Tokyo; Gallery Paula Cooper, NY.)