Go to the library and read a book. Bring the book to the next session.
‘Exquisite Pain’ by French artist Sophie Calle documents the countdown to the end of a love affair as well as Calles’ journey after: a person coming to terms with deep loss and grief. Calle manages to blur the lines between art and life, instantly engaging the reader on her journey of ‘exquisite pain’ and inevitably evoking an emotional response. Well, at least evoked and spoke to me.
Maybe it’s because I’m female. Maybe it’s because I too have been discarded abruptly. I understand the person, who ends the affair, instantly has the upper hand, leaving the discarded left struggling to make sense and find closure. This feeling is evidenced flawlessly in Calles’ book. Some women join a gym, some women cry until they simply can’t cry anymore, some women try to forget. For Calle she began re-telling the story of her break-up over and over with meticulous detail with people that she met and friends. In exchange they would also re-tell an event by which they suffered tremendously.
The theory radically worked. In three months, Calle was cured. The sheer repetition of having to re-tell the particulars of such a horrendous break-up in Calles’ life wore out her story, gradually distancing and numbing her. As she re-tells the story the details become less and less reinforcing her recovery and growth from the initial event. Listening to other people’s experiences of pain also brought Calle comfort, as if their pain had united them and sharing their story a source of therapy.
The physical aesthetics of the book definitely enhance Calla’s story of heartbreak and influence the way the viewer reads and experiences it. The book in shape and size resembles that of a religious prayer book or collection of confessions. It fits and sits in the hand comfortably, enabling the viewer to handle the book with ease, yet evoking a sense of preciousness or holiness, just like that of a prayer book. It’s fairly small, narrow and delicate. Delicacy is reinforced also by the textures of the book. The hardback cover is made of a soft grey fabric with an engraved old-fashioned telephone in its centre. The lettering shines red as well as the edges of the books pages. The use of shine evokes preciousness again and again reinforces the idea of a prayer book. The use of red is used throughout the book creating consistency. The colour represents all the emotions and details within the story, which becomes more obvious as the book evolves as well as the engraved telephone on its cover.
The book begins with a dedication. Resentment ensues. Calle dedicates the book to the man who caused her exquisite pain, which is then followed by its definition, ‘acutely felt, pin-point suffering’. The book is visually divided. It works as a timeline of 1) before 2) the end of the affair and 3) after. It begins with, ‘Before unhappiness’. All the pages in this section are outlined with a red border making its contents appear more vibrant. We learn that Calle was rewarded a grant for a three month scholarship in Japan. While being nervous about the journey and length of time as well as her lover threatening it was too long to be separated, Calle left for Japan on October 25th 1984 and opted to travel from Paris to Japan via train. The event marked the beginning of counting down to the end of her relationship.
The first section of the book, ‘Before Unhappiness’ composed of alluring photographs, reproduced love letters, air tickets, captions and passages from conversations she had, takes the reader through the 92 days to Calle’s abandonment. This is reinforced through the use of a red stamp, which appears on each two-page spread, which illustrates well the countdown to her heartbreak ’68 Days to Unhappiness’. The stamp interrupts the photographs within the book, which is extremely effective. It shows how the whole trip was tainted by the separation from her lover even before the break-up. Little did she know she would be away from him for much longer then initially anticipated.
The images in this section offer a shade to Calle’s writing, offering more contexts whilst allowing the reader to really immerse him or herself in her journey. The images and text seem The section consists of black and white and colour photographs of flowers, food, landscapes, train seats, beds, hotel rooms, hotel keys, children, temples, letters, maps, self-portraits, strangers and brief encounters all encapsulating Calle’s travels. The images are simple, which allows room for your own imagination to fly like the image of the hotel key where Calle confesses to have slept with an Italian man. It’s a punch within the book. A shock. The photograph isn’t graphic or explicit, nor did it need to be, but still makes you evoke in your own mind sounds and images.
Some of the images appear as a small square, some fill a two-page spread, sometimes there is text, sometimes there isn’t. I love that sense of chaos in this section. I feel it reflects Calle’s uneasiness of travelling and how she’s simply just documenting her experiences, not really forming any story, just that of her travels. The amount of visual and contextual information is so poignant, immersion is inevitable: you feel as if you’re travelling alongside with her, each page you turn, you’re anxious, wanting to see what she gets up to next. The last image in the section is of a red telephone on a bed.
‘After Unhappiness’ has an entirely different feel to the first. The page is white with a black border, it’s words printed in red. It instantly indicates that something has changed creating a clear distinction and divide in the book. You turn the page. The image of the red phone is repeated over and over on every single page. Everything radiates out from it. It’s the phone in which her lover ended it all. Its colour, burning red, represents her entire journey and emotional states. Red for Russia, red for China, red for Japan, red for love, red for anger, red for blood, red for pain, red for the damned telephone which was the last and first thing she saw after the event. This section is more constructed, less chaotic to the first section. It shows how Calle’s character has changed: now more logical and matter of fact, before more dreamy and fanciful.
The layout in the section is rigid. The left side is black the right side is white, reflecting Calle’s situation, bleak but one she must look at clearly and logically, to eventually see it as being black and white. Each page has the image of the phone followed by a description of the betrayal prefaced by the number of days preceding it. As the book continues her descriptions become less and less, the font dimmer and dimmer. This reinforces her gradual recovery from the break-up and is extremely effective. On the facing page are various stories told anonymously by people the author met, recounting devastating events including suicide and loss of a job and a dog. Each story has a coloured image above the text taken by Calle. All images are individual; simple yet effective, summing up the narrative in a nice concise photograph. By day 99, Calle is fully cured. The book ends with a calendar entry detailing what pictures/pages happened on which day and month of that year.
This book is simply delightful, heartbreak aside. The thought and visual effects used in the book really move you as a reader. The book forces you to pause, to flick back and forth, to get up and close, to read Calle’s beautifully written narratives no matter how long. I loved the freedom the book gave the reader. Whilst the countdown indicates the direction of the story I did find myself flipping back to make sense of the page I was on. I really enjoyed the interaction that came with this reading. I also loved the use of red and the meticulous detail of the stories Calle re-tells. Everybody has gone through a break up which inevitably makes you relate and feel reflective about your own experiences. I find it really intelligent also how the book resembles that of a prayer book. It makes the reader handle it differently, making you see it as precious. Every detail, every image, every word is used for a reason and enhances Calle’s journey of exquisite pain, which is what I appreciated most. Beautiful.