This is a strange exercise, I am about critique, or at least comment upon, a series of photographs and text by Sophie Calle, this is not the strange part. The fact is that I can’t find many of Take Care of Yourself, the series in question, on line. There are pictures of the installation in various galleries but not close enough to see the photos and a few individual items can be found in close-up such as a copy of an English translation of the letter that sparked it all (as seen above). So, the strange thing is that I am about to review an artist’s work having not seen very much of it and then, at the end, I will answer, as asked by the course notes, whether Take Care of Yourself reflects postmodern approaches to narrative.
I started this essay eight days ago but digressed to research and understand a little about postmodern photography(Attributes of Postmodernism and Postmodernism) and that led to another digression to look more closely at the work of Cindy Sherman (Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills). These were fruitful diversions from the main point but I am not certain that I am any better qualified to answer the question posed regarding Sophie Calle’s work, because I’ve still not seen it. Luckily there were 1.2 million hits on Google to “Sophie Calle Take Care of Yourself” and all the critics have something to say about her and her work so, I can write about what other people think of Take Care of Yourself, I just hope that some of them got to see it.
Sophie Calle is described by many including Angelique Chrisafis (1) as one of France’s best known, living contemporary artists and this seems the right place to start as she is an artist who uses photography as part of her work rather than an art photographer. If we compare her work to another postmodernist in Cindy Sherman we can immediately see a stark contrast. Sherman uses photographs and few words, in Untiled Film Stills (2), no words at all, whereas in Take Care of Yourself Calle provides many words, it is not clear looking at photographs of the installation the comparative space allocated to words and pictures but in terms of creating the narrative it is at minimum 50/50 and arguably the words, if we include the spoken word, might be comfortably in the majority. Postmodernism must be broad church to accommodate such diametrically opposed approaches. Well, of course it is a broad church, Christopher Butler (3) describes it as being like a “loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party” that lacks an unified doctrine. The lack of an unified doctrine never stopped a political party so why should it stop an art movement?
In Calle and Sherman we can find common approaches that reach very different results. Sherman widely appropriated from cinema, she used their stereotypes, make-up, lighting and compositions, she copied their actresses and directed and photographed her stills following the way of the cinema. In Calle’s case appropriation becomes more personal, she has a tendency to take parts of other people’s lives, and of course her own, and through various means turns them into her art. Her work ranges from following a stranger from Paris to Venice (Suite Vénitienne) carrying out intensive surveillance of her victim, including taking photographs, for two weeks to, being employed as a chambermaid in a hotel so that she could riffle through and photograph the guests’ personal possessions including their diaries (L’Hotel). Call me old fashioned but in Britain this is called illegal, in France it is contemporary art. Sergio, writing in Artbook (4) describes her work as exploring “the tensions between the observed, the reported, the secret and the unsaid.” I cannot imagine why stalking someone or secretly turning out their belongings onto a bed and photographing them could create any tensions.
Susan Bright (5) explains that Calle’s work constantly investigates the borders between what is private and public. Her work is always autobiographical and confessional and as revealing about her as it is of her subjects, or is the more appropriate word “victims”. If modernism was about high technique and high art then the slightly sordid aspect of much of Calle’s work would make it postmodern or, at least not modern, but if we need more postmodern attributes there are several. It is about the reaction and perception of the audience rather than to do with pursuing aesthetic or technical innovation, it is full of social and cultural coding waiting for the viewer to interpret, it is very open work, we can draw our own conclusions but it should also be said that in Take Care of Yourself the artist is strongly manipulating our views which is not a postmodern idea.
I have seen so little of her work that I don’t know whether I like it or not but I am uncomfortable with her approach and in the way she invades the privacy of both strangers and those that were once close to her. Her approach to relationships is the strongest argument I have ever seen for a prenuptial agreement along the lines of “You will never use me as part of one of your exhibitions even if I do spinelessly dump you via email while you are on a tough foreign assignment”.
I did spend a lot of time reading about her and watching some interviews but I cannot pretend to find her in any way inspirational and have severe doubts about her motives. This is an artist who filmed the last minutes of her mother’s life and created an installation based on the film (Pas pu saisir la mort). She deals with what hurts her by turning into art, which is completely acceptable but if Martha Rosler (7) defined taking pictures of street people as “victim photography” I question whether Calle’s work is any more acceptable. I fundamentally disagree with Jonathan Jones’ (6) view that Take Care of Yourself is “like reading a brilliant and innovative contemporary novel”. I find it squirmingly embarrassing to see a person, regardless of whether they are male or female, exposed to public dissection, ridicule and analysis because they broke off a relationship (and note that I have only see a few of the installations and a few film clips). I wonder if Mr. Jones would ever be brave enough to ask Ms. Calle for a date.
Is it post-modern narrative ? – Yes.
(2) Sherman, Cindy (2003) The Complete Untitled Film Stills (note that the photographs for this series were taken between 1977 and 1980 but not published as a complete work until this book in 2003) London: Thames and Hudson.
(3) Butler, Christopher (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press
(5) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.
(1) Chrisafis, Angelique (2007) He Loves me Not (accessed at The Guardian 25.3.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/16/artnews.art
(4) Sergio. Sophie Calle: Suite Vénitienne (accessed at Artbook 3.4.15) – http://www.artbook.com/9781938221095.html
(6) Jones, Jonathan (2009) Sophie Calle (accessed at The Guardian 25.3.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/19/sophie-calle-review
(7) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf
Neri, Louise. () Sophie Calle (accessed ar Interview Magazine 26.3.15) – http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/sophie-calle/#_
Coulter-Smith, Graham (2007) Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself, 2007 Venice Biennale (accessed at Art Intelligence 26.3.15) – http://artintelligence.net/review/?p=147