‘Talking to Strangers’ is a fitting name for SOPHIE CALLE’S latest exhibition. On a chilly afternoon at the Whitechapel Gallery, her ‘Take Care of Yourself’ installation gave me my first encounter with Calle’s strangers. The infamous piece was born from a need for salvation: after being dumped by email, Calle asked various women to dissect the text, signed off by her ex with a callous ‘take care of yourself’. The resulting analyses formed the show’s opening installation.
Although the email is horribly self-absorbed and cruel, (in the way that Dear John letters often are), I feel like Calle’s castigation is a touch unfair. As each interpretation is given, the offending ex-lover is subjected to a tirade of venomous abuse. I mean, it sticks in my throat to defend a dumper over a dumpee, but the whole thing comes across as just some elaborate revenge on Calle’s part. Most people I know deal with break-ups by saying bitchy things to their friends, fuelled by wine and sadness; Calle has turned the gallery into her living room.
Sophie Calle began her artistic life when, after returning to her native Paris, she fell into an isolated and lonely existence. Desperately seeking some sort of comfort, she began to follow people around the city. For Calle, “Establishing rules and following them is restful. If you follow someone, you don’t have to wonder where you’re going to eat. They take you to their restaurant. The choice is made for you.” Her work is a natural extension of this odd philosophy, and she demonstrates an alarming expertise in voyeurism. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, in the same way that watching car-crash reality TV makes me uncomfortable; but here, for some reason, I’m hooked on looking at private worlds I shouldn’t be looking at.
From wandering around the exhibition, I get the impression Calle wants her viewers to come to a standstill. Her work is so text heavy that it’s impossible to just take a casual glance: you stop, read, become absorbed in these private lives, and become a stalker too. Her preoccupation with the complexities of human relationships is compelling, and the show provides a fascinating opportunity to escape into another consciousness.
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
Until 3 January
Text: SIOBHAN LEDDY
Photography: CHUN PI LIN