A Woman Scorned Turns Rejection Into an Art Form

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.

In one moment of cross-species solidarity, a parrot -- female, one assumes -- shreds a copy of the thing with her beak. (In a nicely democratic, anti-market move, Calle has made many of these videos, and lots of other details from the project, available in a deluxe new book. It costs almost $100, but it includes several DVDs that, in more limited editions, would cost collectors hundreds of times that much.)

My favorite video shows a competitive markswoman whose response to the e-mail was to shoot it up. She's shown on a firing range, kitted up with the latest high-tech clothes and a gleaming rifle custom-machined just for her hands. The gun barrel barely twitches as she blows the note away. This is jilted woman as remorseless killing machine. Lucky for X that Calle is only an artist.

So what's this all about, then, as art? Gender difference and female solidarity, obviously. The boyfriend's face, the usual stuff of love-affair art, is missing from this installation. Instead, we get a fabulous composite portrait of a community of women, mostly skilled professionals, brought together by the actions of one loser guy. The weepy sentiment that has traditionally been seen as women's artistic territory is replaced by hard-nosed social analysis.

The piece is also deliberately comic. Laughter was the almost universal response of the pavilion's visitors -- far more women than men, at one count -- and that made the piece, for all its sad foundation, feel as cathartic as Caravaggio's violence.

By tending toward comedy, Calle also fights against the melodramatic cliches that art is still surrounded by -- cliches of the tortured artist, the lost romantic soul, the aesthetic spirit who feels more deeply than all others and often speaks in tongues. In this piece, Calle is more torturer than tortured, more glib Don Rickles than babbling Ophelia.

That analogy to insult comedy gets at a possible failing in the work. There's a sense that the whole thing is a one-liner; that you only need to hear the premise to get the piece's point. You could argue that "Take Care of Yourself" doesn't demand, or reward, the kind of close study that you'd give a Titian or C├ęzanne.

That sounds plausible at first, but in practice it isn't really true. Calle's execution is flawless, and its obsessive details matter deeply to her art's success. She gets precisely the right women to do her dirty work for her, and captures what they've done with a perfect artist's eye. Her footage of the markswoman, for instance, would have had less impact if it hadn't been so immaculately staged and shot. And it would have worked less well if it weren't such a contrast to another video that looks as though it's straight from a surveillance camera's tape. That one shows Calle herself undergoing couples counseling, with her ex-boyfriend represented by his e-mail, sitting on an empty chair.

There's plenty of visual variety on view in the pavilion. There are also lots of different entry points into the piece, which give it almost as many twists as a Titian.

The piece isn't a single one-liner, after all. It's a compendium of brilliant, very different cracks and anecdotes and shaggy-dog stories. It's a whole comic routine, almost an entire career in angry comedy. That's not bad for just one work of art from a woman who, as in the past, is sure to be heading, now, for something completely different.

The Venice Biennale continues through Nov. 21. Visit http://www.labiennale.org/en.

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