Do not bring your boyfriend to this exhibition. This is not an exhibition for couples. And, if you are male, don’t bring your girlfriend. In fact, maybe don’t come at all.
There are a few couples here to see Sophie Calle’s multimedia project set in the beautiful 19th Salle Labrouste domed reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, but I don’t fancy their chances. Most of the spectators are women in groups, or women alone. A few lone men wander through, glancing tentatively at the desktop screens scattered throughout the room. Most of them are looking increasingly queasy.
You see, once upon a time, Artist Sophie Calle’s ex-lover sent her an email of breathtaking audacity in which he explained that he had begun to see other women and, out of respect for her desire for a limited form of monogamy (the man rumoured to be Monsieur X is married), had decided to chuck her and hold onto them. But hey, he ends, “Prenez soin de vous – Take care of yourself.”.
What’s a girl to do? Well, Ms Calle decided that, as she was too devastated to reply to this message personally, she could best take care of herself by sending copies of it to 107 other Frenchwomen, from a police psychiatrist to a schoolgirl, asking for their advice and opinions on the break-up message, then exhibit the results for everyone in Paris (and the World, via her participation in this year’s Venice Biennale) to see, hear and read.
Sophie Calle’s previous work has similarly relied on letting other people tell her what to do. She let a stranger dictate her daily movements (Suite Venetienne, 1980) and imitated a fictional version of herself created by American writer Paul Auster (Double Game 1998). Yet, through this self-abandonment, she obtains an odd kind of power.
This time, she has asked a screenwriter, a poet, two sibling romance-novelists, a translator, a cartoonist, a florist, a judge, magazine and book editors, a journalist, a mathematician, and a schoolteacher, amongst others, to explain her life to her. They’ve responded, not only as women, but according to their metier, and their opinions on the ex range from possible violent psychosis (from the police psychiatrist) to the only woman (Iâ€™m afraid I forget her metier but I think it may have been something to do with astrology) who takes the email at face value, believing that the writer has a great and genuine love and respect for the artist.
If you’ve ever been dumped, the result is exhilarating fun. In a reading-room full of old books, mostly written by men, Calle has made new books from the replies she received, all written by women. There is also a ‘livre d’or’ of responses to the exhibition to which men can contribute: I notice the entry, “I’M JUST A NORMAL, BORING MAN!” written in the largest and most self-aggrandising script in the album.
But the exhibition is not just about revenge. It’s a patchwork, a firework, a peacock’s tail, a hall of mirrors of the diverse lives modern Frenchwomen are able to lead. Reading the responses, you can no longer tell where the woman ends and her metier begins.
She has also asked actresses, singers, dancers and a sign-language interpreter to perform their versions of the email, which are played on a loop on screens suspended form the ceiling. Some of them have chosen to enact the voice of the man, some that of the woman reading the letter. You hear the noise of women everywhere. The sounds from the screens mix with reactions of the female spectators to create a constant buzz. It reminds me of the British novelist and critic, Marina Warner who, speaking at her old college in my hometown, Oxford, UK, told an audience of present-day, mixed-sex undergraduates how shocking and disturbing, then how empowering, she had found the unfiltered noise of 300 raucous female students when she joined the then all-girl institution as an undergraduate. In the Salle Lebrouste, the voice of one man has become the voice of many women: a parliament of poulets. It’s jubilant.
I’m at the far end of the hall, watching a video screen of a classical ballerina dance her version of the message, when the man in front of me, hypnotised by the image, backs me against a library desk. In order to see better, he steps backwards, squarely and heavily onto one of my feet. He stays there. I am wearing sandals. He is not slightly built. It hurts. He appears not to notice what he has done. I am about to protest when he cranes his neck further back and steps, heavily and squarely, onto my other foot. Now he has me trapped, unable to move, between himself and the desk. Only when he leans into me does he realise there is another body behind him. He turns abruptly, horrified and, before scuttling toward the exit whispers, shamefacedly, ‘Pardon, Madame!”
Sophie Calle, Prenez Soin de Vous, continues at the Richlieu site of the BNF until 8th June. Tuesday – Saturday 10am-8pm (late night opening till 10pm on Thursdays). Sundays from midday – 8pm. Closed Mondays. Adults 7 euros, concessions 5 euros
More info: www.bnf.fr
Joanna Walsh’s homepage is Badaude at www.badaude.typepad.com