A Woman Scorned Turns Rejection Into an Art Form

Sophie Calle's
Sophie Calle's "Emma the Clown" interprets a breakup e-mail that Calle's ex-boyfriend sent her, in the artist's installation "Take Care of Yourself." (Galerie Emmanuel Perrot; Arndt & Partner; Koyanagi; Gallery Paula Cooper)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Every day this week, The Post will look at some of the most notable art at the Venice Biennale.

A word to any man reading this newspaper: Do not write an e-mail to French artist Sophie Calle. Do not, especially, write her a "Dear Jane" e-mail.

That's what one fool did, and the revenge Calle visited on him is now filling the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

Our guy -- the artist has kindly identified him only as "X" -- dumped Calle by writing her an arrogant, self-absorbed, self-pitying missive. He used the old line that he was leaving Calle for her own good. He'd found himself eyeing other women again and didn't want to have to break his promise not to cheat on her. All of which, he implied, hurt him more than it hurt her.

If that wasn't true then, it is now.

Calle, who was born in Paris in 1953, is one of the toughest artists on the planet; in one famous early piece she worked as a Venice chambermaid, taking pictures of the peculiar, revealing messes hotel guests leave behind. In another, she made a painful, complete record of the breakup of one of her first relationships. So it's no surprise that, rather than indulging in weepy despair -- as if-- Calle chose to turn her latest pain and anger into art. She shared the cad's communique with 107 other women and let them have a go at it.

The piece is titled "Take Care of Yourself," after the writer's closing words, and Calle and her comrades have certainly taken care of him.

Calle sent a printout to a copy editor, who tore apart the jilter's diction and grammar. The text, marked up by the editor in black pen and four highlighter colors, is blown up to fill a giant patch of wall in the pavilion, alongside Calle's photographic portrait of the grammarian.

Also on the wall of the pavilion are the face and comments of a certain Mme. Aliette Eicher, comtesse de Toggenburg, an etiquette consultant who teaches "savoir-vivre." She pointed out, without sparing any bile, all the ways in which Monsieur X broke the basic code of love that any true "man of the world" would follow. (The countess encloses an example of the crisp note a real gentleman might send, handwritten with a fountain pen on rag paper bearing a coat of arms: "My Dearest Sophie, What you offer is a rare and precious thing. I find myself, obliged, however, to give up your company. Please trust that I do so with deepest regret.")

And there are the comments of a forensic psychiatrist, who diagnoses the words as revealing "a true, twisted manipulator, psychologically dangerous and/or a great writer. To be avoided. Categorically." (The originals are mostly in French, but there were translations available in the pavilion in English and Italian.)

Calle gets female experts to translate the note into Latin, Braille, Morse code, bar code and shorthand, all presented huge on the pavilion wall. A female journalist writes it up as the briefest wire story; a puzzle writer turns it into a crossword; a grade-school teacher reworks it as a fairy tale with a sad ending; a pair of Talmudic scholars put it through the most rigorous scriptural analysis.

In a room of ever-changing videos, Calle has the e-mail read and commented on by the great French actress Jeanne Moreau, by British stars Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, by pop singers Peaches and Feist. It gets "interpreted" by a clown and a puppeteer. It's sung out by an opera diva and danced to as a tango, a ballet and tough punk rock.

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