1 December 2009

Prenez soin de vous

If you can, go see Sophie Calle's exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London. It's one of the best exhibitions I've seen in a long time and it finishes on 3 January 2010.

The retrospective section is very interesting, but for me the more recent work Prenez soin de vous (Take care of yourself), which is housed in the main gallery on ground level, steals the show. Staged as a massive installation of photographs, text and film, Prenez soin de vous is formulated around a break-up email Calle received from a lover. She has asked 107 women of various professions and occupations - from a ballerina to a lawyer, from an opera singer to an accountant, from a clairvoyant to a lexicologist - to respond to the email (which has been printed out for them to read) and be the subject of a photograph.

Some may say the result it's cathartic or self-indulgent and I would have to agree on some level. But I don't think these things are necessarily negative. In fact, it is for those reasons that I really love the work. I like the fact Calle has so openly used a personal and specific situation from which to derive her work. I like the fact she has used all women (despite the obvious criticism such a decision could draw). I even like the fact she has been what could be called self-serving, and really overtly so, as opposed to the insidious self-service of which so many (including no doubt yours truly) are guilty.

One could argue Calle has used her art to pry an emotionally troubling circumstance away herself and into others' consciousness, and that this is a negative thing. But isn't this the romantic notion espoused and aspired to by artists all over, even by art itself? (What do they call it ... 'suffering for your art'?) But do many actually do it like that? Maybe not. And perhaps Calle hasn't suffered either.

What we realise is, either way, the result is inspiring, encouraging, dare I say love-affirming, even life-affirming. Because, between those 107 women, those 107 portraits, texts or films, and within the gallery space and the people visiting the exhibition, one can feel a union. It doesn't really matter who wrote the letter, or even who received it. The work speaks first and foremost to our desire to express and share our emotions. Our desire to 'prenez soin de l'un l'autre' (take care of each other).


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