Whitechapel Art Gallery

‘Talking to Strangers’ consists of three gallery spaces in which can be explored the autobiographical and anthropological work of Sophie Calle. First and most dominant is the stand alone installation ‘Take Care of Yourself’, previously presented as part of the 2007 Venice Biennale. Upstairs the smallest space is devoted to ‘Couldn’t Capture Death’ (2007) and a set of panels engraved with the word ‘Souci’ (worry). The final room features a number of works, from 1979 to near present, fulfilling more traditionally the role of the retrospective exhibition.

On entering ‘Take Care of Yourself’ the audience is confronted with a wall of women. These are just some of the 107 professional women who in videos, photographs and textual mediums who reacted to a letter to Sophie from a lover ending their relationship. They picked apart, enacted, shot at, appraised, mocked and even used as a basis for choreography his words.

The large scale photographs and texts are stacked towards the ceiling of the first and largest gallery space. Selected responses from the collective are presented as text, custom designed to represent individual voices, approaches and professions. Videos of the interpreters are positioned in the centre of the room: on one side banks of screens and opposite one large projection. With sound at all times emanating from each side a sound-bleed is created for the audience seated between. This is a strangely calming experience, surrounded by the assembled chorus of support.

This response to the ending of a love affair is an exemplar of the artist’s work. Within this calling together of people she creates a community, exposing a private and painful experience at great personal risk to disassociate, create a game under her control and ask for help yet administer her own therapy. The audience is presented with Sophie Calle taking care of herself.

Entering this installation is akin to being within an exploded book. As an immersive environment it is an overwhelming, time consuming but rewarding process. The clean, simplicity of presentation despite the mass of images and words reflects this measured control within the artist. Even amongst her commissioned texts, as an author Calle can not help adding further structure by interjecting with introductions, like chapter headings, directly on to the wall.

This reserve remains consistent as the subject matter becomes more intimate and traumatic. ‘Couldn’t Capture Death’ is an attempt by the artist to document the death of her mother through both text and video. The emotional content never becomes cloying, this is not a visceral outpouring. Instead Calle has chosen to record and share the experience. She has taken control of bereavement by setting herself a task. In particular the text is succinct and moving.

Despite the insight into the artist that the audience is given, ‘Couldn’t…’ does not fit within the context of this exhibition, especially in relation to the title ‘Talking to Strangers’ and its proximity to the final room which is far more representative of her social interactions. The nature of this work demands separation but to place it between the air of triumph in ‘Take Care of Yourself’ and the playful curiosity in the last gallery space causes too large a shift in atmosphere. It creates a rift between the most successful piece and the retrospective collection of works that explain and reinforce ideas presented in the first.

The final and most crowded area of the exhibition is a less directed experience. There is a sense of discovery in this room, with more space to wander and dip into pieces, mostly presented as series of A4 framed pages, that can almost be read as storyboards. These, more than anything, are the ‘strangers’ of the exhibition title. The pleasure in these works is in discovering the secrets of her carefully ordered and archived encounters.

Calle enters into relationships with people in which she might form a pact of trust as in ‘Sleepers’ (1979), ask for instruction ‘Gotham Project’ (1994), or voyeuristically pursue in the case of ‘The Address Book’ (1983). Each work represents a new set of rules. Calle’s work is a contradiction; she places herself in danger and allows others to guide her but remains outside of the situation through being an artist, taking on the role of the documenting photographer. However, while the text feels intrinsic to our understanding, the photographs are insubstantial. It is not the portrait but the recounting of the experience that is engaging.

The presentation within this room feels less successful in attempts to break up the hanging with a table of photographs to be sifted through and a set of paper publications attached to the wall with intrusive metal brackets (these suggest pages can be turned but this is prohibited). Whereas within ‘Take Care…’ there was a clearer consideration of how to present open books and smaller text pieces, presenting them on angled platforms within vitrines and seating for readers, a better compromise between the necessity of personal engagement and the public space.

‘Talking to Strangers’ is at times like walking through a well designed monograph. As potentially the predominant amount of contact with Sophie Calle’s work could be through a selection of books: Double Game, Take Care of Yourself, Did You See Me?, etc. this exhibition is an opportunity to be introduced in person, or as close as, to the artist. So should it do more? The installation of ‘Take Care of Yourself’ succeeds because it extends the work into a physical experience, whereas attempts in the last gallery to create a more interactive engagement seem to fall flat. Calle’s concepts and mediums so suits the format of a book, where possible accompanied by DVDs, it feels unclear whether this exhibition would be the best way to make first contact with the work. This is a carefully constructed retrospective but as all that can be exhibited is documentation, without gaps filled in by yet more text that would cause an overbalance, it is less engaging than the experience of reading a novel-like Sophie Calle publication.