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Take Care of Yourself

Went to the Whitechapel for the first time since it’s be refitted. (Lovely tactile door handles.)

Alex had encouraged me to go and see Sophie Calle’s exhibition there. I was not surprised he loved it – so deeply wrapped up as it is in female betrayal, rage, vengeance. But what touched me most about it was the elevation of the ‘dumping’ into something so much wider.

Sophie Calle is one of the big names of French conceptual art. She’s been doing it since the late 70s. Have to admit that I’d never heard of her. (Though as I looked round the 5 rooms of the gallery I remember seeing her series on missing Soviet monuments while I was in Berlin.) But the central work – Take Care of Yourself – is so powerful and wonderful that I shall be talking about her for a while to come.

Basically, she was dumped by her writer boyfriend who sent her a slippery, over-written email to that effect. With artful and therapeutic skill, she honed in on the last line of the email – ‘Take care of yourself’ – and created a huge work of art from the letter. She sent the email to 107 women in different fields who interpreted it in their own speciality – so a Latinist translated it into latin, a lawyer dissected it legal statements, a children’s writing wrote a cautionary fairy tale about it – and she photographed and filmed them all working with it.

Far from being self-indulgent, her momentary pain becomes something kaleidoscopic. Refracted through a uniquely female lens. She’s far from mythologizing her breakup or washing her dirty laundry in public:

Love, life and death – all of that is the most mundane material for artists. It amuses me because people often say, doesn’t it bother you to show your private life? I say, well if you ruled out private life, you would have to eliminate all poetry. Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine use their emotional life as subject matter. What I’m putting on show is a dumping. All dumping letters are the same, they’re unpleasant. This one is neither better or worse than all the rest. It’s an aid to a break-up. I don’t talk about the man, and all the better. The subject is the letter, the text … It was the words ‘take care of yourself’. Those words made me click. He said ‘take care of yourself’, he knows how I take care of myself, he knows what my method is.

It’s a great experience. Especially because there are elements within it that unsettle the whole piece. One of the female writers warns her of the dangers of ganging up all these women to shore her up against her grief: ‘the choir you have formed around this letter is the choir of death’, she say, rather like the Naysaying Fairy at the banquet.

It’s testament to the robustness of Calle, that she placed that quote in the middle of the whole exhibit. In the same way that she was delighted when graffiti artists broke into her Bronx exhibit in the 80s and tagged every single photo and piece in the gallery.

However, one of the most profoundly moving pieces in the whole Whitechapel show was the small gallery dedicated to her mother’s death. Couldn’t Capture Death features a few beautifully made tableaux – the word ‘souci’ (care) on various unusual surfaces; a beautiful, luminous panel describing the last things that her mother did in the last few days of her life; and then – most startling of all, a 13-minute video of her dead mother lying in a bed, in a modest French bedroom. There’s a bedspread, a small stuffed toyed, an armoire, a pillow, a head board, some orange roses and the dead woman. The only clue that it is a video rather than a photo is the sound of people breathing, of very gentle movements off camera. Otherwise everything is still.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Flan who was talking about seeing her father dead in the morgue. How there was nobody there. Nobody. This was the exact portrayal of that emptiness. It was beautifully modest and moving.

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