Whitechapel Art Gallery

“Take Care of Yourself” 2009 is a retrospective of her work from the 1980’s to the present. The main room and point of interest focuses on the break up letter she received from a lover. In true Calle style, once composed she consulted 107 different professional women all experts in their particular field, to examine and extract notions from the text and respond to them by using their own personal skills. Initially chosen for their word based professions for example the grammarian focused on the dryness of the vocabulary and the psychologist analysed his motives. After a while the process becomes more distant from the artist as she worked with a crossword writer, accountant, dancer and a markswoman who simply shot this letter.

Stepping into the main section of the room was like stepping into a contemporary novel. The walls were systematically covered from floor to ceiling in the responses from the women who participated. Craning my head up towards the high ceiling, I was overwhelmed with the quantity and intensity of the responses. Beneath each profession, Calle incorporated their ideas of love, subtlety of language and identity through photography, installation, writing and video.

The work requires and rewards the viewer who offers an investment of time. It is not an exhibit that one can easily slip into. Disheartened, to find myself battling to read and understand the responses; the intellect and expertise of some of the women soared above my head. As well as being at times visually difficult, particularly the presentation high on the wall, the choice of font, context of language, overlays of writing and the use of perspex hindered my progress as I struggled to read and digest some of the information. As I travelled around the room I found myself overwhelmed and felt I needed to return to the exhibit at a later date. In buying the exhibition book, the overpowering walls have been compacted into bite size chunks and DVD’s within provide an element of choice in what to view making the whole experience more accessible.

Despite the technical layout of the show I did find the responses intricate and clever as the ‘communal disembowelling’ of text began to decode and unmask the ambiguities of language as they second guess X’s (Calles former lover) intentions. The simple use of a particular word or a comma and quote unravelled a new dimension of meaning and reality as they were all explored from a collective of perspectives.

For the passerby, Calle’s work may seem to be a collection rather than artwork, although this is very subjective. There are stereotypes and perimeters in art as there are in any aspect of our lives: “The difference with so many of Calle’s works: ‘is the fact that they are also a part of’… her … ‘life. They happened.’ This manipulation of experiences and thought is modified by an element of chance, of following the outcome.

Returning to the centre of the room I turned to face the noise that had been niggling at me. Relieved to find a bench, I chose to sit facing the thirty-three small screens that played at random on a larger screen. Challenged by the unconventional single angle films that consisted of an array of song, dance, translation and abstract performance I managed to watch about five of her films. Once I had recouped my energy I turned to face the large, silent screen of classical Balinese dancer performing the letter, behind me, which I found was another level I had difficulty engaging with.

I found myself frustrated and agitated as I was forced to wait for the film I wanted to see in the collection. I also became aware of all of the interfering sounds as three sound tracks could be heard at the same time from different points in the room.

The space for viewing the piece of work is weighted equally with the experience of viewing the actual piece. However, good or bad the piece may be, the different ingredients involved in presenting a piece of work all play a vital role. It is just a shame that the presentation in Calle’s case was not up to the mark in relation to the work as it left the viewer engulfed and frustrated. Although the strength of the women, towering on the solid walls has a dictatorial feminist touch which in turn could be perceived by some as another reason why it was so uncomfortable to view and read. The show seems to: “offer a private relationship as a public act. Ostensibly, Calle is fostering debate on the social rules that govern sex and love. But like all exhibitionists, she choreographs her revelations and misdirects the inquisitive away from zones of privacy she wants to protect. She invites gossip, stylizes it and tries to control it.” Her work is not a totally victimless act even when she seems to be the subject but is that any different from a portrait painter? Where a good portrait painter shows the face ‘warts and all’ the good and bad character showing; her detachment and calculated observation makes her arguably as much a anthropologist as an artist.

Despite the slight disappointment in the overwhelming presentation I am still very drawn to the contexts and method that Calle uses in her work. Breaking the boundaries of socially accepted behaviour; seeking answers that I myself would like to be able to elucidate, there is a sense of sheer nosiness as she explores and dissects every crumb of information, followed with an inquisitive question of why?

This line of thinking, endless yet totally absorbing is reflected in the walls of the exhibit. I found my fascinated by the journey in which an emotional incident that before our eyes has been objectified and neatly dismembered, in a sense worked through by a sisterhood of supporters, becomes a work of art. Calle says: “Art is a way of taking distance. The pathological or therapeutic aspects exist, but just as catalysts.” As we can all relate to being rejected at some point in our lives, we are drawn to this work, and distanced from the pain.