artist's book, Book Reviews

Figuring Absence, pt 2: Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain

We left off the last post with the idea that belonging is a core part of our experiences of absence. Following is the continuation of the transcription of my CBAA presentation, Figuring Absence.

Exquisite Pain by Sophie Calle

So let us now turn to Sophie Calle’s book Exquisite Pain which takes up both of this idea of absence as it relates to belonging and also examines that process in which the emotional presence of the absence becomes less over time (but in this case, quite intentionally and to good effect).

Exquisite Pain turns a failed love affair into a timeline of before and after the point at which her lover leaves her. “Before unhappiness” and “after unhappiness,” as she puts it. The underlying story is of the time when she received a three-month travel grant that she used to go to Japan at the end of which she and her lover planned a reunion in New Dehli. During her absence he begins an affair with someone else but in an act of pure cowardice not only doesn’t tell her but calls her several hours before their rendezvous saying he is getting on the plane for New Dehli.  She then arrives, in her outfit bought specially for the occasion, to be greeted with a cryptic note full of lies about how he’d been in an accident and couldn’t come. After hours on the phone trying to get through to him she finally does and instantly knows it is over and that he’d never intended to be there.

Before Unhappiness

The book is visually divided between the before and after.  The “before” section chronicles her trip, which she made by taking a train from France, through Russia, then China, finally to end up in Japan. Each day is counted down with a large bordercrossing-like stamp declaring the number of days left till unhappiness. Each page spread in the “before” section is framed in red – Red for Russia, Red for China, Red for Japan. Red for love. Red for anger. The layout of “before” is somewhat haphazard – sometimes there is text on the left and an image on the right,  sometimes an image spreads across both pages. It is often hard to tell where the images were taken or how they piece together into any kind of story. (You’ll see later how this contrasts with the “after” section.)

Day 0

The interesting thing about this section is of course the countdown.  The simple presence of that stamp, changes how you experience the images and stories being presented. Things take on a certain foreboding. History is rewritten to contain a prescience it didn’t have at the time, though she does admit to a fair amount of trepidation throughout the trip because her lover had told her he does not take well to being left alone. The pain of that moment when she realized he would no longer be there by her side is ever-present in the book: before, during, and after it actually occurred. The book is telling her story not by telling the actual story, but by rewriting it to visually and conceptually express the overwhelming centrality of the pain that she felt in that one moment of realization he was no longer a part of her life, and for several months afterwards. It is shown here by the only full-page spread without any frame. The picture of a red telephone on an empty bed in a hotel room in New Dehli. It is the zero point on the timeline and everything radiates out from it. The arc of the book’s narrative thus shows, what we talked about before – the idea of belonging and intentionality that is so integral to the idea of absence. This unnamed lover is, after all, not present throughout the entire book. But it is the absence on the intended day. The day of the reunion. The day he was supposed to be there, that matters. That is the absence. The rest is separation.

After Unhappiness

The second half of the book, “After unhappiness,” takes on a very different visual form. The layout is extremely rigid.  The left page is black, the right is white. On the top left is the picture of the phone – repeated on each page, and below it a narrative of the story of her affair and how he left her. On the right side are stories told by Calle’s friends in response to her question “When did you suffer most?” accompanied by a picture illustrating the story. Some are far more wrenching that what she is experiencing, and serve as a kind of foil to her pain.  What we are seeing, though this is not obvious at first, is the cure for her pain. The telling and retelling of her story is a process to reach the point in which she can see him for the jerk he truly is and rid herself of her pain.

Day 95

One page after another the story gets shorter and the ink gets lighter as her pain fades.  What we are seeing is the opposite of what we saw in Meejin Yoon’s book. There the banality of sameness served to remind us of the inner conflict we may feel over our own forgetting of tragic events, not to mention the fleeting nature of the meaning in a memorial. Here, in Calle’s book, banality is used as a cure to the too little forgetting and as a memorial not to the object that was absent, but simply to the author’s past experience of that absence.

In the next installment we’ll take up political absence as explored in Ken Campbell’s lush letterpressed opus, Ten Years of Uzbekistan.