Sophie Calle: Talking to Strangers
16 October 2009 – 3 January 2010
Currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London is an exhibition of work by artist Sophie Calle. If you are anywhere in the vicinity, make sure you visit this absorbing show. Bringing together major works from the 1980s to the present, the exhibition contains a group of artworks which offer a range of departures from Calle’s signature approach to making art – the documentation of social interactions and situations. The majority of these encounters are initiated by the artist, resulting in unfolding narratives realised through the form of text pieces, written testimonies, film and photography. Calle originally began this process in the 1970s by taking photographs and making notes as she followed strangers in the streets.
The exhibition opens with Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself, 2007). The title is taken from an email in which a former partner of the artist breaks up with her, ending his email with the phrase “take care of yourself”. Calle invited 107 women to interpret the email, amongst whom were a judge, a singer, a chess player, an anthropologist, a Palestinian ambassador, an intelligence officer, and a clown. The responses take the form of performance, written analysis, dance, film and visual image – each respondent is photographed with the letter in question eclipsing their face. The results are charming, amusing, intriguing and cruel. A criminologist pronounces the ex-lover “an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous and/or a famous writer. To be avoided at all costs”; a teenager responds by text “He thinks he’s cool”; a film piece shows the email being handed to a parakeet who rips the letter apart with its claws and beak. The range of responses are beautifully displayed in frames and on LCD screens, and one is left feeling surrounded by the voices and analysis of the 107 women who together assist Calle in devising different methods of ‘taking care of herself’. The former partner could never have anticipated the extent to which his every word would be dissected – yet the result is not bitter but surprisingly warm and witty, an intelligent essay on the end of a relationship.
The exhibition continues with earlier works including The Bronx (1980), where Calle asked residents of the south Bronx in New York to take her to a place of their choice (the resulting photographs and texts were displayed in a gallery which was broken into – all the work was covered in graffiti which remains on the works and adds to their interest), and her collaboration with American novelist Paul Auster (1994), where she becomes one of his fictional characters, following instructions which he sends to her including telling her to smile at strangers, set up home in a phone booth, and supply homeless people with sandwiches. She then documents the social interaction which ensues. Another work is The Sleepers (1979) in which Calle invited strangers to take it in turns to sleep in her bed.
Aside from Prenez soin de vous, my favourite work in the exhibition was Anatoli (1984) which describes a journey Calle took with an unknown 68 year-old Russian man with whom she shared a train carriage. 6 of his 8 suitcases were filled with food, and despite his initial anger and frustration with her for not being able to play chess, he set up their table with food and vodka, and demanded she ate and drank. From this initial meeting they establish a routine of eating and sleeping – they agree that due to his terrible snoring she must be allowed 30 minutes run in time to get to sleep before him. Despite their lack of mutual language they communicate to one another and a relationship develops. A table in Whitechapel Gallery is covered with piles of photographs of Anatoli and the carriage, inviting the visitor to sift through them to add up the stills of their domestic routine and participate in the private sphere of their interaction.
This exhibition brings together individual and collective experience, the mundane and the grand, and offers a survey of human activity at its most fascinating. It also leads one to believe that Sophie Calle has a very interesting life indeed.