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The most impressive work at the 52nd Venice Biennale was, in my opinion, Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself which filled the French Pavilion. This is a complex work that took a long time to view (VIDEO CLIP 1). At first it was confusing because it was so vast but gradually one became aware that behind the initial, overwhelming complexity there lay an elegant simplicity. The entire installation which consisted of a mass of photographs, graphics, reading materials, and video (VIDEO CLIP 2) was based on a single letter, or email; I will refer to it as a letter because that is how it is represented visually in most of the parts of Take Care of Yourself.
The letter was allegedly sent to Calle by lover jilting her. Whether the story is true or not is not clear and, perhaps, doesn’t especially matter because the letter is transformed into a work of conceptual art via processes of translation, transposition and permutation. Calle took the alleged ‘dear jane’ letter to 107 female professionals commissioning them to interpret the missive according to their profession.
If it was a real ‘dear john’ letter then it might as well have been sent to Alan Turing the pioneering computer scientist and cryptographer who programmed an early computer to write a love letter (reference). Essentially that is the treatment that Calle’s ex-lover, real or fictional, receives. From one point of view Calle’s Take Care of Yourself is a triumph of reason over the capriciousness of emotion. And this action gains in significance because it is a woman who is exercising the power of her reason over the rather pathetic emotional confusion of the male who sent the letter.
The profusion of transpositions that Calle subjects the letter to points, in particular, to the absurdity of the letter writer’s attempt to suggest that his inner emotional turmoil at breaking off with Calle was worse than the news he was delivering to her. A particularly effective interpretation of the letter was provided by a professional female clown who read the letter out in a video (VIDEO CLIP).
In a somewhat Derridean fashion the ‘original’ letter (if there ever was one) goes missing in this exhibition buried under the torrent of interpretation. The letter is interpreted to death, perhaps like art. Analysed in detail from at from 107 different perspectives, the perspectives take over. In the end there is an overwhelming proliferation of ‘meaning’ that effects an erasure of meaning. Two large minimalist white frames near the entrance held a giant brail (PHOTO 1) version and a shorthand version (PHOTO 2) which seem to spell out the inner blankness of the original text, as does another translation into barcode language. Derrida once used the conceit of a personal message, specifically a postcard, to pursue his notion of the ‘abyss’ of signification, and it seems to resonate with Take Care of Yourself:
What does a post card want to say to you? On what conditions is it possible? Its destination traverses you, you no longer know who you are. At the very instant when from its address it entreats, you, uniquely you, instead of reaching you it divides you or sets you aside, occasionally overlooks you. And you love and you do not love, it makes of you what you wish, it takes you, it leaves you … (Derrida)
When we look at the letter in English with footnotes provided by the translator we certainly find both something of a vacuum as well as an interesting specimen for analysis (PHOTO 3). An especially interesting exegesis in Calle’s exhibition is provided by a forensic psychologist, Michele Agrapart, who would normally use her skills to profile the criminal mind. What follows is a translation of part of her insightful comments on the letter:
This email if it is authentic is apparently written by a seductive manipulator who maintains a relationship of dominance and influence over others. His is a nonagressive influence, the influence of someone adept with words, who has the capacity to pass off any negative act on his part in a manner that places himself in the position of victim obviating himself of blame and making the person he is speaking to feel guilty.
Reading the English translation of the letter we find it contains a great deal of hesitation and elaboration pacing around the simple statements (i) I am seeing other women. (ii) It is over between us. The writer piles layer upon layer of emotive verbiage over these statements in an attempt to cover up and twist around the rather simple thing he has done. There is nothing especially dreadful about the letter, it is simply a statement of emotional cowardice. It may be real it may be a concoction, but the more one studies it the more it appears real. And if it is real then the manifold of transcriptions that Calle subjects the letter to can be read as revenge and/or therapy. What is more interesting perhaps is the meaninglessness of the letter, the decorative over-elaboration that desperately tries to disguise a rather simple content. Does that reflect the condition of a work of art?
It is certainly the case that Calle has turned the letter, real or not, into a work of art. Like the letter writer she has engaged in florid elaboration, enough to cover all the walls of the large house-sized building that is the French pavilion. The difference is that the elaborations Calle has commissioned become symbols of strength rather than being symptomatic of a manipulative emotional cowardice. The message of Take Care of Yourself is not simply philosophical-conceptual it is also significantly political. Calle mustered a phalanx of female professionals to deconstruct the offending letter and this phalanx represents the still changing structure of society in which men no longer have exclusive access to social power. The squirming writer of the letter is crushed under 107 potent heels.