When Sophie Calle’s lover dumped her several years ago, she decided to re-send the letter that ended the affair to 107 different women. Among the readers were a judge, a rapper, a psychoanalyst, a novelist and a family therapist. Their written responses are the starting point for Take Care of Yourself (2007), the central piece in this eponymous comprehensive exhibition of Calle’s work at Lillehammer Kunstmuseum. Eighty-eight analyses of that break-up letter are presented here – hung on the wall or, in some cases, displayed on large tables in the centre of the room. All of the readings are accompanied by a stylized photograph of the interpreter involved in the act of reading the letter in question. But not all of them write; some respond through dance, recital or song, and these performative readings are presented in a multi-screen video collage on the wall.
The original letter, which ends with the words ‘Take care of yourself’, reveals the thoughts of a man who is unable to be faithful. While his missive was obviously a form of rejection disguised as compassion, it was also an order to do something – to accept failure. But instead of limiting the reading of the letter to closure, Calle insists on using it as a connective tissue for solidarity among women. She converts it into a collective object, a conversation piece, enacted and read publicly by a multitude of strong women – all of whom skilfully translate the letter into their specific field of knowledge. With the exception of a parrot repeating ‘Take care of yourself,’ the respondents are all authorities in their respective disciplines. The only weakness in the work lies here: where is the anonymous, everyday woman, who would surely have something to say as well? In any case, the expanded act of reading rewrites the coordinates of failure. What was at first limiting and destructive, through this joint effort produces a library of responses with an almost encyclopaedic versatility: viewers can reference this library to redefine other kinds of apparent rejection or failure. In this sense Take Care of Yourself is a generous, humanist and even an emancipatory work.
The piece was originally commissioned for the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007, and while it has been shown several times before, it really comes into its own in this show. The surrounding works on display function as comments or enlightening footnotes to the centrepiece; this applies the other way around as well. An early piece like The Address Book (1983), for example, becomes an inquiry into the foundations of the self, rather than an indexically orientated, Conceptual work in the vein of On Kawara’s ‘Today’ series (1966–ongoing) or Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969).
The location of the museum is also important here, because Lillehammer Kunstmuseum has neither the money nor the cultural capital to be a major player in the global art scene. But, in showcasing the work of this high-profile artist, the institution rewrites the coordinates of that discourse. The context is also productive for Calle’s work because 2013 marks the centennial of Norwegian women’s right to vote and, here, Calle’s methodology seems to mirror the crucial freedom given to women through voting. According to co-curator Janeke Meyer Utne, the selection was a conscious strategy: Calle is just one of a series of female artists who will be showing at the museum this year.
Ultimately, ‘Take Care of Yourself’ is about truth administered. The ambivalent order of the letter (‘take care of yourself’), invokes Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976), which revolves around the question of how to develop a strong sense of self within a repressive context. Perhaps Calle chose the last line of the letter as a kind of homage to the philosopher. In this sense, the show could be read, through Foucault, as a genealogy of rejection – a nuanced and bold reconsideration of the preconditions of its truth and its performance. Being the underdog is not a fixed position, Calle tells us, but rather a question of how you relate to the person writing to you.
First published in Issue 156