Monday, 20 October 2008

Taking Care of Myself. . .

I'm spending a few days in the fabulous city of Montreal indulging in my favourite activities - walking the city streets, window shopping (and a bit of the other kind - I just can't resist the sweaters and lingerie at Simons), and drinking lots of lattes while reading in cool cafes. Today I walked down to the cobbled streets of Old Montreal just in time to catch the final day of the Sophie Calle exhibit, Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself). Calle is one of my favourite contemporary artists. Her work consists in endlessly examining the ontological aspects of people's psyches and personalities, including most often her own and it's so fascinating and clever - she's alternatively playful, thought-provoking and often extremely funny. Some of her previous projects have included following a man to Venice and photographing him; having herself followed by a private investigator; and taking a job as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice in order to photograph the objects left in the rooms she is cleaning to create a portrait of the inhabitants. Paul Auster created a character based on Calle in his novel Leviathan attributing some of her actual art projects to his fictional artist. He also made up some projects which Calle then attempted herself and the two had an interesting creative dialogue which is recounted in the book Double Game (highly recommended - it's a quirky, beautifully designed book).

I absolutely love Sophie Calle and I was so glad to see an actual exhibit of her work (I own several of her books) which was so professionally impressive in its design and installation. In Prenez soin de vous, Calle gives a copy of a break-up letter she received from her lover to 104 women, two puppets and a parrot and beautifully photographs each recipient along with displaying or videotaping their reactions to the letter (which ends with the line "Take care of yourself"). In a nice touch the letter is also provided to visitors at the beginning of the exhibit. The women represent a broad cross-section of professions which directly influence their responses. A copy editor points out all the grammatical mistakes. A criminal psychologist does a personality profile which is definitely not complimentary. A chess player deconstructs the letter into a game. A romance author and a children's book author turn the letter into a romantic short story and fairytale respectively. Singers set the letter to music. The parrot eats it and then indignantly ruffles his feathers (absolutely hysterical). Some of the women featured are famous actresses (Miranda Richardson, Jeanne Moreau) or musical artists like Feist. The photos of the women reading the letter were varied and in some cases stunning; Calle does amazing things with lighting - in one photo, the letter seemed to glow with an energy all of its own. Not only was the exhibit visually intriguing, but it raised a lot of interesting questions about how our professions (which, let's face it, absorb the majority of our waking hours), influence how we view people and situations. Alas, there were no booksellers featured. How would that noble profession have reacted? Compared it to other great break-up letters in literature (if you liked reading this one, try. . . )? Relegated it to the remainder pile? Categorized it? (hmmm, does it belong in fiction, self-help, psychology, cultural studies, fantasy?)

The exhibit first appeared at the 2007 Venice Biennale and I read about it online. I promptly bought the accompanying book as soon as it was published in English and I'm so glad I didn't wait, because according to it now costs more than double what I initially paid for it. I'm guessing the reprint was costly - the book's production design would lend itself to that. Not only does it come with a DVD for all the video pieces, but the fairytale, for example, is sewn in as a mini-book within the book. The letter is also reproduced in braille and there's tons of colour photography throughout. It's one of the most unique and beautiful books that I proudly own.

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