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"Prenez Soin de Vous"
Installation by Sophie Calle
Review by Diego Costa
Paris, France—

The notion of "écriture féminine" is debatable for some and undeniable for others. How can there be a kind of writing rooted on something that only exists as a social construction? But also: how can it not exist, for the exact same reasons?

Along comes "Prenez Soin de Vous" ("Take Care of Yourself" ), a piece by French artist Sophie Calle (currently at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, previously at the Venice Bienalle 2007), to give birth to a new kind of "écriture feminine" : the "installation feminine."   Ultimately an appropriation of an "écriture masculine" (if we follow Monique Wittig's logic, perhaps all things female spring out of the neutral masculine), Calle's piece is a vindictive extrapolation of sorts.  A refusal to close unresolved wounds.  A jab at the hermetic tactfulness of masculine hubris.

She took a rupture letter from her boyfriend, in which he – with a wounding, excessive politeness – skillfully breaks up with her and she gave it to 107 females from different professions.  The idea was that each woman would elaborate on the letter, analyze it, dissect it, decode it, unmask it, translate it -- according to her own métiers and write a letter back to Sophie with the results.

The results couldn't be more diverse in process (if not in judgment): from a psychoanalyst's report to a professional chess player's.  Also, Calle's own mother's assessment, a philosopher's, a translator's, an actress', a novelist's, a comedian's and even a clown's.

The letters sent back to Calle are exposed in all their thoroughness around a huge study room completely dominated by the piece (some last a couple paragraphs, some are as long as 12 pages).  Either in regular A3-paper form or on huge posters hanging on the walls, or in video form (less successfully), the responses tend to sympathize with Calle's suffering and agree on one thing: the ex boyfriend is a cold, calculating, talented son of a bitch.  What's new?

What is so moving about the exhibit is its clear potential for universal identification.  Calle has done what most people have the urge to do when they are broken up with: we want to know exactly why.  Why?  Why? Why?  We want the details, we want "the truth," we want to revisit and dissect the wound.  We want no room left for ambiguity, as if the details could save us from or even overturn the verdict!

It is true that, in a way, Calle's process is anti-psychoanalitical, since other people do the hard work for her, but that's why this is an art piece, not a couch session.

Another reason "Prenez Soin de Vous" works so well is because it immerses you for hours, literally and literarily, in this tragic love story.  In the end you understand and share Calle's frustrations as if they were yours.  Because they are.  Her ex-boyfriend's words of rupture, in fact, could have been your own ex's (although likely not as eloquently put).  By the time you leave the room you (a) realize all love stories are pretty much the same (b) the feminine counterparts often end up with the short end of the stick and (c) men suck, and here is the physical evidence -- 107 of them.

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