Sophie Calle tells Brian Dillon about a love letter and the language of breaking up
Remember those times when critics could simply barge into an artist’s home and talk to them about their work? In person and not on Zoom? Yeah, it’s a bit hazy for ArtReview too. Which prompted another trip to its archive bunker to remind itself of times gone by, times to come again, and times when trying to get close to people was an artform, not a crime.
In its fifth selection from the archive, writer and academic Brian Dillon interviews the artist Sophie Calle ahead of the 2007 Venice Biennale at which she represented France. Known for her examinations of subjects including human intimacy and vulnerability, Calle employed controversial tactics in her early work, from following a stranger around Venice to recording notes and messages left in hotel rooms to cold calling phone numbers from a found address book. Here, Dillon visits Calle at her home in Paris and narrates their meeting from the artist’s point of view.
The journalist turns up at ten o’clock. They told me 10.30, the publicity people, and I’m waking up slowly this morning, so when the buzzer sounds I ask him to come through and wait for me in the garden. I’ve just spilled something sticky – I don’t remember what now – on the kitchen floor and I spend a minute trying to clean it off the tiles, give up and go to the door. No sign. I call out: are you there? He appears from behind a clump of bamboo, and a cat darts away in fright.
No, that’s not my cat, I tell him as I close the glass door; my cat is staring at you, though. The journalist looks around, a little startled, at the stuffed animals – maybe he thinks I meant the tiger, glaring down from the opposite corner – before he spots Souris, totally still on the stairs.
I go to make some coffee, forget to put coffee in the machine, try again. While the journalist pulls a notebook from his bag I have another go at the kitchen floor. I’m not paranoid, I assure him. Or obsessive-compulsive, he says. I ask if he intends to write our conversation up as a set of questions and answers. I dislike that style; when I read these interviews, I never know myself: it’s not my language. He says his preference is for a proper narrative, though the magazine sometimes favours the Q&A approach. We can always pretend, I tell him, that I insisted on a real text, that that was the first rule of the game. He laughs, says it won’t be necessary: he will find a form.
Maybe he’s already decided how he’s going to write about me, how to explain me. Maybe he hopes it will be like the time my writer friend Hervé Guibert interviewed me, and asked me if I was born in 1953, and I told my whole life story, spoke for five hours straight, gave him everything. Or perhaps he has in mind a tale, a fiction, in which case it will be as though he were never here at all.
But of course it’s simpler than that: he has come to ask me about Venice, about my projects for the Biennale. So I tell him about the letter, or rather the email. It was two years ago. An ordinary break-up letter, in a way, such as men write to women all the time. A woman would not have written this letter; though I can’t say why, can’t defend that certainty. Except to say that it was not ordinary at all: it was too written, too considered, too stylised, as if that were the point of it: its literariness. And it ended with a sentence that was violent in its formality, its Pilate-like washing of hands, its brusque dismissal of me. It’s the sentence I’ve used as the title of this new work. Take care of yourself.
I had no idea how to answer. I showed the letter to a friend, asked how she would respond. And then it struck me: I would not reply, but ask others to answer on my behalf. For once – in fact, I’ve done it before, but not when the subject was so personal – I would withdraw, efface myself and let other voices speak for me. I found 107 women – I chose them by profession – who agreed to interpret the email. Among them are writers, actors, dancers, musicians, a chess player, my accountant, an etiquette consultant, a clown, a judge, a moral philosopher, a historian of the eighteenth century and a puppet at the Jardin d’Acclimation, Paris. They are my doubles, my proxies: they understand, dissect, judge. They take care of me because I cannot. I gave the letter to my mother, and she responded, as a mother. I even took it to a family mediator. I sat it on a chair. I said: he is not here, but here is what he would say if he were. She played along. She said: do you know how it makes this woman feel when you say that? And turned to me: tell him how you feel.
Does the man in question know about the project? Yes, of course; I told him. He liked the idea, though it’s a little frightening for him. Anyway, he couldn’t imagine stopping me. He is a man of some intelligence and resourcefulness; he’s far from feeble. He can reply if he likes, and in public too. Also, he has a sense of humour.
I show the journalist some mock-ups of how the work will look at Venice. I have photographed each of the women, and filmed many of them – the actresses and singers especially – as they reacted to the letter. The email itself will appear in full, also translated into Morse code, Braille, binary and barcode. There will be the marked-up text as corrected by a proofreader, the email rendered in cipher by an agent of the secret service, a report on its legal standing by a contract lawyer, the reaction of a nine-year-old child, an SMS translation. In the films, the dancers dance, the singers sing and the clown hides and sniggers at the intimate bits. Jeanne Moreau’s film is among the longest: she pauses to comment wearily on each of the letter’s manifest effronteries. In the last of the films, a parrot that has been taught the text of the letter rips a copy of it to pieces with its beak, addresses the camera and speaks, I have never lied to you. I will always love you.
Why this interest, the journalist wants to know, in such ephemeral but formalised texts? Why my taste for such flat modes of writing: the diary, the questionnaire, the list, the report? Why this resistance to metaphor? I tell him that flatness, for me, is writing; when I write, I do it by erasing, cutting, flattening, till my text is as economical and dry as possible. When I wrote my Autobiographies, between 1988 and 2003, it took a year to rid some of them of the excess. It’s just my style, the language I’m comfortable with. Maybe this is why the man’s email struck me: it was far from flat, it was fraught with metaphor.
The journalist looks at his notes, lifts his empty coffee cup to his lips, is visibly unsure of his next question. Something to do with autobiography. He seems to be suggesting that there is too much of it around, in the culture at large, that it’s too easy. What is he thinking? That I, of all people, am about to disavow art that says ‘I’? Not quite: he wants to know where the processing of pain ends and the real work begins. Well, I say, this project: it was all about a letter, not about a man. It’s not as though I’ve spent the last two years agonising about this break-up. I could recite the letter by heart, here, this instant, but it’s just a piece of paper for me now. It’s a thing, to be interpreted. The project takes over. But I need sincerity at the start. Years ago, another man, with whom I’d been living for seven years, left me. But I quickly felt better, and so there was no project. Early on, with Take care of yourself, when I knew it was a good idea, I was afraid this man would come back to me. What then? I would inevitably choose him, and lose the project.
The phone rings. The journalist fiddles with his tape recorder while I organise my next meeting, at noon, and ask the young woman who is coming to see me to bring a copy of Libération: they have a short article today on my Venice project.
We carry on: he asks me what photography means to me now. What a question. I can’t answer. I know this: the pictures for Take care of yourself are pretty good. In the past the photographs were simply what they were. In 1980, for Suite vénitienne, the photographs proved I had been there, following that man; the camera put me in the situation, made me take the risk. That’s all. In The Hotel, three years later: the same need for evidence, the same danger of discovery, the same carelessness (or incompetence) regarding ‘good’ photographs. Later I had others take the photos for me: the places where the stolen paintings had been for Last Seen in 1991, the monochrome meals for The Chromatic Diet in 1997. This time, when I photographed each of the 107 women, I never expected good photographs. But when I looked at the contact sheets, there they were. People said: be careful, you’re becoming a good photographer. But maybe he, the journalist, thinks they’re really bad?
He shrugs. He thinks they’re great: especially the ones where the women photographed turn away, hide their faces. It started because certain professions – the cop, the judge, the woman from the secret service – couldn’t be recognised; then it became a style, not quite a rule. He wants to know about the photographs on my wall: the Diane Arbus, the Nan Goldin, the montage by Linder Sterling that I bought a month ago. But I’m not really a collector. I like Cindy Sherman. I like classical photography. I remember photographs. When I think of my father, I imagine a photograph. When I think of my mother, I remember the last photograph I took of her before she died. He asks about my memory; I tell him it’s awful, abyssal even. I read books five times and still cannot recall the names of the characters. Everything here is in drawers and boxes, so I can find it. I have to write everything down before it escapes.
The time is running out. It’s 11.30 already, and I haven’t talked about my other project for Venice, nor about my mother. So I interrupt the journalist. On 15 February last year I received two simultaneous phone calls. One told me that I had been invited to exhibit at Venice. The other was from my mother: she had a month to live. I wanted to be there when she died, but everybody said: she will go when you leave the room, when you’ve wandered into the kitchen with a cup. So I set up a camera in her room, and for 80 hours I stayed awake, changing the tape each hour, hoping to capture the moment of her death. It was impossible: I couldn’t tell the moment. When I told my mother about Venice, she said: ‘to think that I won’t be there’. But she will be: my film shows the last 20 minutes of her life. It’s called Couldn’t Capture Death.
The journalist seems stunned, as if what I’ve described is very strange, or very familiar. To break the silence, I usher him towards the computer at the other side of the room to watch a few of the films from Take care of yourself before he leaves. The door buzzes again; it’s noon. There are mistakes in the Libération article; I will have to phone them. The sun has begun to stream through from the garden. At three o’clock, more stuffed animals will arrive from the taxidermist in the south: a bear and a peacock. I’ve asked for the bear in a sitting posture, so I can install him at the kitchen table. The journalist gets ready to leave, says he has more than enough material. On the screen, the actress Miranda Richardson is reading the letter aloud. The man speaks of his suffering, his confusion, his anxiety. Also of his love for me, which he says requires of him this frankness now. He has not been well recently, he says. In fact, he has not known himself. Take care of yourself. The tape recorder snaps off loudly.
First published in the June 2007 issue of ArtReview