Monday, April 14, 2008

Prenez Soin de Vous/Take Care of Yourself

Yesterday I -- okay, the proper verbs are failing me -- what did I do? I visited, experienced, participated in, reveled in, absorbed, saw, adored... Aw, heck: I went to the Sophie Calle exhibit "Prenez Soin de Vous" at the Bibliotheque nationale on rue de Richelieu.

It was brilliant. I had grave reservations about it as we entered the doors of the magnificent, elegant reading room and I heard the cacophony in the normally hushed vaulted space. This is an art exhibit? I was wondering. (I'm no art critic, as you may have guessed. I simply record my reactions, talk about what resonates.)

I knew that the premise of the exhibit was that an artist, Sophie Calle, has received a siyonara letter from her hitherto loving sweetheart, which was filled with lame excuses and a final phrase, "Prenez soin de vous:" Take Care of Yourself. I knew that Calle had then taken that letter to 107 women (no idea how that number was chosen) and had them interpret, dissect, enact, react to the letter. The exhibit was a smash hit at the Venice Biennale des Arts last fall.

So I decided to be more avant-garde and hip than my usual mundane self, and check out the exhibit, mostly because I love the Bibilotheque Richelieu, and also because I see so much "old art" in Paris, I decided it was time for me to get more contemporary.

It was brilliant. Did I say that already? It was brilliant, not only as a work of conceptual art, but as a social force. The reactions of 107 females, aged 9 to 90, (that's my guess) slashing their way through this letter. Deconstructing it. Whether it's a work of fiction or reality doesn't even matter.

Imagine printing up a copy of a hi-oh-and-by-the-way-I'm-dumping-you-goodbye letter from your beloved, and having it read and interpreted by, among others, a lawyer, a clown, a young teen, a police commissioner, a singer, an actress, a cartoonist, a comedian (with inflatable dolls and other paraphernalia), a professor, a dancer, a proofreader... well, it goes on. All recorded on video, audio, origami, opera, ink, whatever medium. Not only is it wonderful performance and visual art, it is the best possible sweet revenge imaginable. You know what I mean.

In any case, if you are in Paris, and you have the chance to visit this exhibit, GO. And it's not just because it's an exhibit that you can look at blessedly sitting down occasionally (watching the videos on the reading desks). It's also for the experience of the other people around you. Some people laughed teary-eyed at parts I thought were bland. Other parts I hooted at hysterically, which other people had moved on from, unmoved. Much is in French, but after viewing a few of the English-language versions, you'll understand the whole work of art more fully.

I am not an art critic , because I find the ineffable just that -- ineffable. In terms of recommendations, I usually simply want to slap someone hastily across the cheek and say, "Don't ask; I can't tell you why you should go, just GO!" Not very delicate or ladylike or descriptive of me. And I've never slapped anyone in my life, so please do me a favor, and just GO! Go see this exhibit. If you don't like it, I don't want to hear about it.

A book version exists of "Prenez Soin de Vous" as well. But the only medium I haven't seen used to interpret The Letter is the internet.

So, maybe ... should this exhibit get launched on a virtual extension not yet undertaken by Sophie Calle? As I wandered through, awestruck, I thought -- what if I took a picture of me reading The Letter in front of a performer reading the letter, and posted it on my blog? A mise en abyme of the event itself. Or -- what if the internet took on this art and turned it into another art? Turned the letter into a sort of tag or meme and thousands of internauts re-interpreted the letter too? Ah, I can dream.

If Sophie Calle had asked me to do an artistique interpretation of such a letter (and I won't take it personally that she didn't, for now), I would have re-intrpreted it as a disposable toilet-seat cover, or a new designer Band-Aid strip -- or a barf-bag on a very, very turbulent flight. So what if I'm an artistic simpleton? It was that brilliant, that inspiring.

How would you artistically interpret such a letter? Here it is, in English.

Pass it on.


from cali said...

So many words, such bull**** excuses just to say "casse-toi . . .", well I won't finish the rest.

Marianne said...

I saw this in Venice and felt the same way. It is fascinating, I loved the varied and intelligent reactions, such a tribute to the sisterhood of women too. I hope I'm in time to go and catch it here too. Thank you! Marianne

Polly-Vous Francais said...

cali: yes, and that's part of what makes the exhbit so powerful. It resonates.

marianne, yes, even if you saw it at the biennale, I think it's worth seeing again here in Paris -- so incredible in the vast reading room of a library. And when I was there the crowd was 50/50 men and women, and the men seemed to appreciate it equally. So perhaps it also resonates with anyone who's been on the receiving end of a missive like that.

Unknown said...

i've had a similar experience of awe at the sophie calle show at Pompidou a few years ago. absolutely amazing. La douleur exquise was the epiphanie -- spectacular, much in the way you describe. you can get the book here. and then i got this set and some of them were also part of that show, and anyways, all of it is awesome. and now i ll go to bed. -ariane.

Shelli said...

Thanks for posting this. I just missed it in Venice and I'm thrilled to hear it's in Paris. Do you know how long it's going to be there? We arrive on the 28th and it's high on the list to see (along with you of course).

nepas_ledire said...

I just read the guy's letter, and I am appalled at the « légèreté » (flippancy?), and even insensitivity with which some women have commented it. How in the world should a man tell a woman that their relationship is over? The guy is deeply moved, it's obvious, and the letter is nothing like "oh by the way I'm dumping you". He's living a deep crisis and copes with it the best he can while trying to be as correct as possible. How can one be blind to that?
Popular wisdom has it that women are more sensitive than men, well reactions to this letter may be proving the contrary. This is not to deny the suffering of the woman who received the letter, but systematically and one-sidedly victimizing the woman in any love relationship is certainly not the way we can improve understanding between men and women.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

I'm just scratching my head and wondering why the letter refers to an ex-lover as "vous." Is this some nuance in the whole tu/vous dance that I never noticed before?

Or perhaps he's dumping several of his multiple girlfriends at the same time -- to save time, you know, put everyone in BCC and click "send."

Sarah S said...

you have the most amazing entries ever in existence. I am going to share this with my women's and gender studies class.

maitresse said...

Glad you liked it! I saw it in Venice and loved it, don't know if I'll have time to catch it in Paris. My favorite was the clown!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Hey Ariane, Hope you liked my mise en abyme reference! Thanks for the book info.

Shelli & Gene - can't wait to see you; the exhibit goes until June 8. Click on the bibliotheque nationale hyperlink in the post for all the info.

parisienne, I immediately wondered about the "vous" too. The only thing I can think of is that "prends soin de toi" is the copyright slogan of Garnier or l'Oreal (it's on a shampoo ad) and so maybe she wasn't allowed to use it?

maitresse, I really liked the clown, too, but didn't find it so uproariously funny (as some did) but most assuredly percutant! I loved so much of it, but I really enjoyed the teacher's corrected version. (As for some others, for example IMHO, Arielle Dombasle should stick to singing).

ne pas le dire, I don't think it's about man-bashing at all -- and that's why it resonated with men and women so well. I hope you have a chance to see it.

And thanks, Sarah!

One other thought -- for anyone who has read "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," there were times when I was at the exhibit that I thought of one of Valmont's letters to Mme de Merteuil, written in bed using his lover's back as a writing desk. And his anguished letter to Mme de Tourvel saying "it's beyond my control."

Caro said...

I absolutely loved this exhibit. but I too think it is important to not let our man-bashing sides take over because we have no idea what happened on the other side of that relationship. But it definitely does suck that he sent that message in an email. I loved the little kid's rendition of the simplistic. And the comptable as well. And it's funny that you should mention the vous form because the person who translated this into English had the same trouble. It's hard to get the nuance if it isn't in French. And I definitely know a woman who uses the vous form with her lover. I'm still not quite sure why! Anyway...thanks for the posts Polly. Love this site!


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