Paula Cooper Gallery , April 9 – May 23, 2009
It is doubtful that “X,” the aptly named anonymous former lover of the artist Sophie Calle, anticipated that the artist would use his break-up letter, sent to her via email, to open the collective floodgates of feminine response, metabolizing the experience through a public exegesis, or else he might have picked up the phone instead. “Still,” the letter says, “at least it will be written.” In the absence of an ongoing relationship, the desire for some form of permanence remains, though Calle has outdone “X” in the magnitude of her search and the range of her results. His final communication, so impersonally delivered—no voice, no postmark, nor presence of the hand—becomes her consummate art.
Calle has taken the tag at the end of the letter, “Take Care of Yourself,” as an ironic imperative as well as a sincerely therapeutic prescription. In taking care, she invites others to provide explanations for the inexplicable rupture, or just lamentations in the spirit of lyric drama. By circulating the letter to women of all ages, artistic and otherwise, Calle transforms the breakup into a survey of interpretation. The format of the show, with the names of responders, their photographic portrait, and their framed accompanying artifact of interpretation, places the work somewhere between the realms of legal exhibit and time capsule. Calle’s formal distance, and her deliberate choice of all female subjects, remasters the gendered bias of emotion as feminine privée and woman’s wile.
Is the desire to shame “X” what charges the show with such hysterical objectivity?
We are given a series of privileged interpretations, translations of reality—as linguistic as they are visual—rather than pure fact. Dead seriousness gives way to comic relief when French lawyer Caroline Mécary determines in her brief that on the basis of Constitutional Law, “X is punishable” for up to two years in prison or a fine of 37,500 Euro. The response of a children’s book author sublimates the break-up into a tale that children and adults can understand—a translation, as it were, of the obscure world of adult malaise. A schoolgirl astutely observes that “X’s” break-up letter uses complicated words like “irrémediable” and “masquerade,” and simply concludes that Sophie is sad.
In one of the videos on rotation within a panel of gridded monitors, we watch Laurie Anderson type the letter into a laptop. As she types, a combination of computer-generated playback and strips of light reflect off the computer screen onto her placid face—emotional feedback as semiotic music. A Talmudic scholar and clairvoyant give esoteric readings of the letter, while musicians riff on the theme with blues, beat box, post-punk, or classical compositions.
A researcher in lexometry, a writer, a translator, an ethno-methodologist thinking of the ramifications of technology on our speech—all digest the affair’s disclosure with restrained forms of commentary, including footnotes, torn paper, highlighted marginal notes and mapping. A criminologist, judge, journalist, headhunter, and accountant offer more steely objectifications.
A sharpshooter’s target is the letter mounted on balsawood; the bullet holes are backlit with pin-sized LED lights to better illustrate the wounds. A graphic designer turns the letter into origami. For these two, the letter’s content becomes raw material and sculptural conceit, as it could also be said for a yellow parrot that devours the paper.
The humor, expertise, and empathy of the women manage to uplift and entertain the viewer, while fairly unanimously deciding that “X” is a sham.
In each of these exhibits of text and image, Calle’s interpolates the evidence, but with no conclusive results, only silk-screened echoes: important data is circled in red, or words from the document underneath plate glass are lifted out and printed on top of it, hovering above the artifact. Here too, as in “X’s” treatment, the hand is distanced by the medium of silk-screen, so that responses never get too touchy.
Wittgenstein once proposed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If that is the case, then Calle’s work translates the broader feminine experience into a formalized world of possibilities. The “answers” are less important than the forms of engagement and investigation, the invitation to construct meaning.
This exhibition originated in the French Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale.