French artist Sophie Calle has made a career of invading the privacy of strangers. In her first major project, Calle documented her clandestine pursuit of a stranger across Europe. Her portfolio also includes a study of an unsuspecting man whose address book she found on the street, and a stint as a chambermaid in Vienna spying on hotel guests.
In her most recent work, Calle lets the spotlight shine on her own life. The ambitious “Prenez soin de vous,” which debuted at the 2007 Venice Biennial, was conceived as a response to a breakup email sent to the artist by her lover.
In French prose alternately cold and personal, the writer explains to Calle that their relationship is over. He ends the letter with the words “take care of yourself,” giving the exhibit not only a title, but a direction. At first, Calle refused to scrutinize the curt correspondence – but after sharing it with a friend, she decided it needed to be professionally interpreted by 107 women.
Calle selected an illustrious group of women to examine her crisis. Some of them are celebrities, such as singer Feist and Spanish actress Victoria Abril; most are unknown. Original songs and interpretative dances are to be expected at such an exhibit, but it’s the more mundane “professional opinions” that define the show.
Upon entering the DHC/Art gallery in the Old Port, visitors are struck by a poster-sized copy of the letter, dissected by a professional proof reader. Her handwritten comments and highlighter marks bypass any emotion, critically commenting on the writer’s grammar and style.
Emotion does have a place in many of the pieces spread throughout the gallery’s four floors, though they never sacrifice the professionalism displayed by the proofreader. A criminologist takes a CSI-like approach to the letter, while a children’s book author publishes a short tale of heartbreak.
Some reactions are bizarrely professional, like that of the 18th-century historian who translated the email into 17th-century French. The reactions displayed in the main gallery are largely textual, accompanied by photographs of the contributors.
DHC hosts the audio-visual portion of the exhibit, only a few steps across Rue St. Jean. Most of the other videos, shot by Calle, are forced to share only a few screens. Several notable European actresses provide renditions of the letter and a variety of singers perform interpretations of the text. Canadian shock-rocker Peaches composed an uncharacteristically reserved song that displays her range as a musician. Montreal’s own Pony P, of Les Georges Leningrad, contributes a tribal noise dance.
Another standout is chanteuse de soul Nicole Williams, who sings the letter like a humble hymn. In the midst of ironing her laundry, the singer leaves the letter on the ironing board as if she has only just read it; the immediacy of her emotion and the vulnerability of the domestic setting mark this interpretation as the total opposite of the barren notes of the proofreader.
The exhibit doesn’t try to attack men or the patriarchy, as might be expected from such a powerful, feminine jam. Addressing her own faults – the letter insinuates infidelity on her part – Calle avoids the easy role of a woman scorned. Gender roles are rarely addressed in Calle’s exhibit; the women that she’s assembled are strong in their own right, not in reaction to the wrongs men have done them.
The women validate feminine strength by refusing to degrade men, addressing their own insecurities without blame. This is expressed by a sharpshooter who sends two bullets through the note. Her actions are not aggressive towards a man, but rather a sign of her own ability.
The layout of DHC makes the potentially overwhelming “Prenez soin de vous” easy to absorb, as the architecture of the space leads viewers from one clear point to the next. The weakest part of the exhibit is DHC’s audiovisual presentation. Maintained in a separate building, the arrangement suggests two parts to something that should be unified.
The majority of the projections share one screen, meaning that impatient viewers will not be able to skip ahead through the dozens of clips to the segments that interest them. It’s a good thing the exhibit is free of charge, because sitting through all the videos requires multiple visits.
At least a passing knowledge of the French language is necessary to appreciate the exhibit, and fluency is required to fully understand the first part, where many of the passages are handwritten. Still, Calle invited a few translators to contribute their professional skills and many of the songs are in English – or another language altogether.
Montrealers should particularly enjoy a translation of the note into French text messaging by an ado – French slang for teenager – which includes the adorable abbreviation “ajord8.”
“Prenez soin de vous” is on at DHC/ART (451 St. Jean) until October 19. Admission is free.