“Working-through” public and private labour: Sophie Calle’s ‘Prenez soin de vous’

by | Jan 15, 2011 | Reviews, Writing | 2 comments

Ever since seeing it in its Montreal incarnation at DHC/ART, I have been fascinated by Sophie Calle‘s exhaustive installation about a breakup email, Prenez soin de vous. The project is engaging, sometimes funny, sometimes ridiculous and not without its faults. In this month’s issue of London-based journal n.paradoxa, which is themed around women’s work, I finally had the chance to unpack my experience of the piece in an article about how Calle frames women’s psychic and affective labour, and her own work as an artist, through the installation. The journal is only available in print (which you can order here), but here’s a short excerpt from the introduction:

In 2007, the conceptual and performance artist Sophie Calle was chosen to represent France at the Venice Biennale. The installation she created for the French pavilion, titled Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself), comprises hundreds of photographs, documents and videos that depict 105 women’s (plus two puppets’ and a parrot’s) interpretations of the same source document: a break-up email sent to the artist by her lover in 2004 which ends with the cryptic and seemingly offensive parting, ‘Take care of yourself’. The email’s clichéd ending became the instructional imperative for the artwork but, unlike her other works, in which Calle played a central and active role as artist-protagonist, Prenez soin de vous constitutes a dispersal of autonomous artistic authorship, offering up in its place a collective form of interpretive labour by other women. By inviting so many different women to interpret the breakup email based on their professional expertise, Calle’s project engages – perhaps accidentally – in a feminist critique of women’s work in the post-industrial, service-based economy or a commentary on women’s current roles as both producers and consumers of culture.

I’m not sure that Calle’s sometimes-accidental critique of public and private forms of labour is always so successful in Prenez soin de vous, but I do think the piece opens up some interesting questions about legitimate and unofficial forms of work (which are so often done by women).