Sunday, February 10, 2013


This post is loosely inspired by the French artist Sophie Calle and her project Douleur exquise (Exquisite pain).  12 or so panels were on display at the Seattle Art Museum.  They were poster-sized panels below photos with the left side being a photo of a red phone on a hotel bed and the right side a series of other photos.  Beneath the photos were the alternating black and white panels.  On the left, Ms. Calle related the story of how her lover had broken up with her via this exact phone.  On the right, she had asked a number of acquaintances what had caused them the most suffering and here she related their tales -- often of break-ups, but also deaths, a miscarriage and going blind. 

The texts (in French) appeared to have been embroidered, though I have since learned there were approximately 90 double panels.  While I suppose she might have undertaken these all by herself, it seems more likely that she found an industrial solution. What was more apparent from the book but not in the panels on display (in Seattle) was that the left hand stories got shorter as the pain dulled and the color of the text darkened and finally went black (the background was also black).  In the next to last two panels, the text is essentially not legible in the book; in the final panel, it is completely black.  It would be interesting to know if the embroidered text could be read in person but not in reproduction (which incidentally was the effect that Ad Reinhardt was going for).

I guess the entire thing was staged in Paris at the Centre Pompidou and occasionally elsewhere.  At least once it was done in conjunction with a Gehry-designed space, though I think that actually detracts a bit from the work.

Most people that encounter this work will run across it in book format -- either the original French or a translation into English.  The book supplements the second half (the doubled up suffering) with some photos of her journey to Japan and eventual travel to India, where she was supposed to reunite with her lover (which is why she was in a hotel room when they talked on the phone and he broke things off with her).  I am fairly convinced that the texts will work better in French (and I did read the handful on display in Seattle).  There is definitely something French about some of the suffering, particularly love affairs that sort of end for no good reason.

To order the book is just slightly more than I want to spend on just a whim, so I am trying to convince myself that I should order it and then compare the two versions (I have the English version out from the library).  That's a fairly weak rationalization though, since I don't expect I will ever truly regain my fluency in French.  I guess one never knows though, and I will probably practice French a lot more in Ontario than I would in B.C.

But it still might make a good totem/touchstone when I think about the continuum of unhappiness.  I certainly spend a lot of time in the disgruntled/dissatisfied region, but I suppose I am not truly sad all that often, and I have done relatively little true suffering, except when my mother passed away.  Ms. Calle certain thinks that she brought this particular suffering upon herself, since her lover warned her that their relationship wouldn't survive a 3 month separation, but she went to Japan anyway.  3 months is certainly a long time, but context matters a lot.  I actually was more upset over a 6 week separation from my family than a 3-month separation that had happened earlier.  Perhaps reminding myself how ridiculous people seem when they get operatically sad might be useful.  Or maybe not.  The same with keeping a clear head when analyzing whether and how one might have brought some unhappiness upon oneself through one's own actions.  Almost no decisions in life lead to unqualified success/happiness or conversely failure/unhappiness.

I think my daughter tends to be a sad a lot, though she recovers fairly quickly.  Here is her drawing of how sad she was at school when her best friend was out and she didn't have anyone to play with at lunch.  She is all of the girls in the chain, indicating just how sad she felt.  (I think the flower might even be crying.) 

I guess I am a little sad that she seems to have inherited some of the more negative aspects of my personality... I suppose it is too early to tell for sure, but I would hope she would be spared some of the things that afflict and burden me.

I've decided to return to add to the original post.  On the one hand, it is actually fairly interesting to see the slightly different variations Calle runs through as she slowly gets over the break-up and the pain dulls.  However, given that the exhibit and panels weren't created until 15 years after the break-up, it is more of a recreation of a mourning process (unless she took really good notes at the time, which she may have done).  She kind of explores different facets of the earlier stages of the relationship, reliving it; other times, she focuses more on the cause of the break-up and even tries to convince herself that the relationship was an impossible, inappropriate one that would have ended anyway.  I remember going through this obsessive recounting phase in the early 90s and burned out a couple of friends, since most people don't need to hear the same thing told 90 different ways!  But I do recognize that she truly was mourning in her own way, and I think the fade to black is fairly clever, even if not ground-breaking.  Rituals can be very helpful in going through trauma of various types.  After my mom passed away I wore black exclusively for 6 months (probably even my tennis shoes but I am not certain) and then gradually added greys and dark blues for the next 6 months.  At least, that is how I recall it.  It certainly was a long period of time, and I guess it was fortunate that I was a grad student and it wasn't viewed as completely eccentric or indeed out of the norm for TAs to show up primarily dressed in black.

Where I do find fault with Ms. Calle is that she seems to not have benefited from her 3 month stay in Japan.  Maybe the experience entered her art in other ways and for other projects, but really she seems to consider the whole thing this huge drag that ended her love affair.  Why did she bother leaving Paris in the first place?  Her art seems to be either very personalized (a slightly more sophisticated and polished version of Tracey Emin) or is about watching people interact in public spaces, such as hotels, and always with a bit of Gallic flair.  Why anyone thought her leaving Paris was a good idea is beyond me.

It is only when you look beyond Exquisite Pain, esp. Appointment with Sigmund Freud, that you find that she really does gravitate to irresponsible lovers and unreliable friends.  In short, she does not seem to be someone who chooses wisely.  I suspect she is a thrill-seeker, and it is always easier to maintain thrills in one's life if one's relationships are always on edge, ready to crumble at a moment's notice.  She also seems to let chance dictate a great deal of her decisions, including at least once whether she would start sleeping with a near-stranger (she did).  It probably sounds like I am judging her harshly.  I wouldn't put it like that, since I don't feel I am moralizing, but I do think she is more responsible for her own actions and occasional suffering than she acknowledges.  I am not surprised that she eventually collaborated with Paul Auster, who has written a fair bit about chance and fate.

One last comment, which is more specifically directed to the Seattle art show (Elles) than to Ms. Calle's work, is that it is kind of depressing when you go to an show filled with female artists and so many of the pieces are simply about their relationships with men.  It's almost like there is this double or triple bind and these artists have still given far too much power to the men in their lives.  Even when they dance around naked (in virtually all the video pieces), they still can't really reclaim their bodies away from the male gaze.  I can't express it well without a very long and boring exposition, but it just feels like something out of Foucault's writings on power and hegemony.

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