As I mentioned briefly, I found Sophie Calle's installation "Prenez soin de vous" at the French pavilion of the Biennale completely addictive. I could have easily spent all day there, watching all the videos and reading all the responses. I'll need a interactive DVD version of this ...
Partially of course it's the fact that a written text is the centrepiece of the installation, so as a writer (and reader) I can relate to the fact that there are more than a hundred different ways to look at this text.
Most papers have covered this only with a paragraph or two, so I had to turn to the Sydney Morning Herald to spare me the trouble of writing an arts review myself:
Spurned artist's 107 ways to loathe her lover
Sophie Calle has turned heartache into conceptual art, writes Angelique Chrisafis.
PICTURE this. You're one of France's best-known living conceptual artists. You are 51 and visiting Berlin. Your mobile beeps; it's an email from your boyfriend. In a hideously self-absorbed message about human emotion, he dumps you electronically, saying it hurts him more than you. He signs off: "Take care of yourself." You're heartbroken. Then you think of its potential as art.
Sophie Calle has filled the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale with a praised exhibition about her emailed dumping letter. Over two years, she distributed the missive to 107 women professionals, photographed them reading it and invited them to analyse it, according to their job. The ex's grammar and syntax have been torn apart by a copy editor, his manners rubbished by an etiquette consultant and his lines pored over by Talmudic scholars. He has been reordered by a crossword-setter, evaluated by a judge, shot up by a markswoman, second-guessed by a chess player and performed by the actress Jeanne Moreau. A forensic psychiatrist decided he was a "twisted manipulator". The temple to a woman scorned is entitled Take Care of Yourself (Prenez soin de vois), immortalising lines that Calle, if she hadn't had recourse to the international art world, might have read again and again in tears.
"The idea came to me very quickly - two days after he sent it," she says. "I showed the email to a close friend asking her how to reply and she said she'd do this or that. The idea came to me to develop an investigation through various women's professional vocabulary."
At first it was therapy; then art took over. "After one month I felt better. There was no suffering. It worked. The project had replaced the man." She feared he might seek a reconciliation, which would have ruined the whole thing.
Sitting under a pair of stuffed bulls' heads in Calle's warehouse home south of Paris, surveyed by her taxidermy housemates (a bear in a rocking chair, a tiger in a necklace and a zebra), it's hard not to wonder what man would send her a monstrous email like this.
He must have known he would be immortalised by French art's game-player in chief, the Marcel Duchamp of emotional dirty laundry. This is the woman who 30 years ago started her career following and photographing strangers in the street, once trailing a man to Italy. Over a decade before the British artist Tracey Emin displayed her soiled sheets, Calle invited strangers to sleep in her bed for eight-hour shifts over nine days, photographing and asking them what age they were when they last wet the bed.
She got hold of a lost address book, interviewed everyone inside about its owner and published the results in the newspaper Liberation, delighted when he sought revenge by publishing a nude photo of her. She got a job as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel to rummage through guests' possessions and photograph the mess people left.
Calle won't say who dumped her, only that there is a one-word clue at the start of the book of the exhibition. Did he approve?
"He knew about it. He didn't like the idea but he respected it. So he decided not to meddle."
Was she looking for revenge? "No. And a fear that it might be interpreted like that initially made me hesitate."
She doesn't use all her boyfriends as work, she insists. Her current partner has asked her not to do anything based on him and she has agreed.
Take Care of Yourself is only her second piece about a partner, she says, if you don't count No Sex Last Night, a film about marriage made with her then husband. Her first dumping piece, Exquisite Pain, is to be revisited in an exhibition with her "guardian angel" Frank Gehry in Luxembourg. It is the record of how in 1985, Calle won a bursary to Japan for three months and her boyfriend arranged to meet her in India at the end. As she was boarding the plane she got a message saying he was in hospital in France. He had actually met someone else. She repeatedly told the story of her dumping, asking others about their worst moments of suffering. She found it too raw to show the piece for almost 20 years, until a Pompidou Centre exhibition in 2003.
Raking through her emotional life for subjects, she has been compared to women artists such as Emin and accused of cheap tricks. "Love, life and death, all of that is the most mundane material for artists. It amuses me because people often say, doesn't it bother you to show your private life? I say, well if you ruled out private life, you would have to eliminate all poetry. Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine use their emotional life as subject matter. What I'm putting on show is a dumping. All dumping letters are the same, they're unpleasant. This one is neither better or worse than all the rest. It's an aid to a break-up. I don't talk about the man, and all the better. The subject is the letter, the text. It was the words 'take care of yourself'. Those words made me click. He said 'take care of yourself', he knows how I take care of myself, he knows what my method is."
A prime example of Calle turning pain into art is another piece for the biennale. Calle says that when she was told last year she would be showing at Venice, another call came through: her dying mother who had a month to live. Calle nursed her at home. But she had heard people who are dying often wait for the two minutes when their relatives leave the room to slip away.
"It became almost an obsession. I wanted to be there when she died. I didn't want to miss her last word, her last smile. As I knew I had to shut my eyes to sleep, because the agony was very long, there was a risk I might not be there. I put a camera there, thinking if she gave a last jump or start, a last word … I'd have it on film."
This led to another fixation. "The obsession of always having a tape in the camera, changing the tape every hour, was so great that instead of counting the minutes left to my mother, I counted the minutes left on each tape."
Calle was in the room when her mother died. She hadn't shot the footage as a piece and didn't feel ready to use it, but her Venice curator persuaded her. Pas pu saisir la mort is a film installation of the last minutes of her mother's life. "I spoke to my mother about the biennale … She was so horrified about not being there, I thought the only way I can make her be there is if she's the subject."