Hell hath no powers of analysis like a woman dumped. That, anyway, is the message I got from Sophie Calle’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Calle has made a career out of recording her journeys and experiences, and creating strange experiments and inviting strangers to participate. The first one I knew of was Sleep, when she invited strangers to sleep in her bed, photographed them and asked them to talk about the experience. It’s the kind of art that makes some people roll their eyes. The same people, I imagine, who ‘don’t read poetry.’ What’s the point? they ask in frustration, to which the only answer is, what’s the point of anything?
This project began when she received an email from a lover telling her it was over. He sounds like a real bounder – one line was something along the lines of ‘you always said you didn’t want to be the fourth girlfriend and I am sparing you that indignity by dumping you’. So, like any artist worth her salt, she cannibalises her heartbreak unflinchingly, and comes up smiling – or at least, no longer weeping – with a brilliant new exhibition. Good for her.
She chooses 107 women of various professions and ages to analyse the letter. Sort of what you do with friends when this kind of thing happens, but taken several stages further. And the exhibition is a record of their responses – images of them reading the letter, written reactions to it, video footage of an actor reciting it, even a short story written by a children’s author that makes it into a sort of fairytale. A proofreader marks up repetitions. A young writer boils the email, eats it and declares: it tastes of cowardice.
A headhunter concludes that the man ‘would be used profitably from time to time in companies that are restructuring’, while Calle’s mother’s no-nonsense words are gradually obscured by blurred glass.
Others are very funny. A clinical pychologist ends with ‘he must have a small kitchen, and cook up tasty little meals. He must have charm but not be classically handsome. He is an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous and/or a great writer. To be avoided at all costs.’
Another writer, Christine Angot, is more blunt: ‘If Sophie had loved his as much as she said, she wouldn’t have summoned a whole squadron of women to help her get over it. The choir you have formed around this letter is the choir of death.’ Jeez, Angot, tell us what you really think.
A police captain responds wisely: I understand Madame Calle’s complaint, but in penal terms it is not admissible, for their appears to be no financial loss, and as for the moral prejudice, it is inherent in all amorous relationships, for don’t we all fall in love at our own risk? And my favourite is a young schoolgirl’s response: he says he would have liked things to turn out differently. That means they are going to turn out badly. It is sad.
It’s somehow a very writerly exhibition, not just because there is so much language, but because it looks closely at motivation, and the way an imaginary, unseen character can be perceived in so many different ways, yet have a kind of coherency, too. She builds this man out of words and reactions and even though you never see him you find yourself responding to him, and to her. I suspect she has well and truly got the bloke out of her system by now, but my analysis would be succinct. You dodged a bullet, Sophie. Be grateful.
It’s on until January 3 & the gallery now has a new restaurant, too.