Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Can Pain Be Exquisite? Autofictional Stagings of Douleur exquise by Sophie Calle, Forced Entertainment and Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan
Author: Anneleen Masschelein
Abstract (E): In a comparison of different versions of Calle's Douleur exquise I try to examine how the affective subject is paradoxically undermined in the distancing and splitting of the subject positions, but resurfaces in the experience of the different stagings of the autofiction.
Abstract (F): Dans une comparaison entre deux versions différentes de Douleur exquise de Sophie Calle, j'essaie de démontrer de quelle façon le sujet affectif est paradoxalement mis en question dans la fissure et la mise en écart des position subjectives, mais peut renaître dans l'expérience des différentes mise-en-scènes de l'autofiction.
keywords: autofiction, Calle, installation, theatre, staging, trauma, masochism
To cite this article:
Masschelein, A. Can Pain Be Exquisite? Autofictional Stagings of Douleur exquise by Sophie Calle, Forced Entertainment and Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 19 (2007).
Sophie Calle's overview exhibition in Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003 was suggestively titled M'as-tu vue?, 'have you seen me?'. On the cover of the catalogue, Calle keeps one eye covered, as in an optometrist test, the typeset of the title further elaborates the motif. Both the title and the photograph draw attention to the central themes of Calle's oeuvre: the eye and the gaze, or the problem of watching and being watched, of seeing and not seeing. In most of her projects, nearly always combinations of photography, narrative and installation, Calle observes herself and others. From a grammatical perspective, the title M'as tu vue? foregrounds the seemingly passive object 'me', which is in fact the active subject of the enunciation. The title contains a provocative invitation of the other's gaze and reveals the 'I' as the subject of the exhibitionist pleasure resulting from this. Thus, the 'I' is from the outset caught up in a complex double role of observer and observed. The positions in this minutely staged situation shift and the border between reality and fiction is disrupted.
Calle's oeuvre is tributary to the conceptual tradition in the French avant-garde and influenced by psychoanalysis, poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is nowadays sometimes described with the fashionable label 'autofiction' (or even 'auto-photo-bio', see Macel, Gratton). In this autobiographical subgenre the authenticity and truth-claims underlying traditional autobiography are questioned by a mixture of autobiographical, theoretical and fictional elements. The title of M'as-tu vue?, moreover, not just denotes the "omniprésence de la figure de l'artiste dans la demarche" (as Cullinan testifies, Sophie Calle was regularly present at the exhibition, observing the viewing public), as a slang expression for the fashionable, snobbish incrowd that likes to flaunt its coolness and adores being the centre of attention, it also ironically reflects back on the genre of the exhibition itself and on the role of the viewer. (Pacquement: 19) An overview exhibition in Pompidou is a recognition of the fashionable status of the artist and a must for the art-loving public that will stand in line for hours if needs be and shuffle through packed rooms, in order to have seen it all, and to have been seen at the event.
The tensions between active and passive, between exhibitionism and voyeurism, between autonomous pleasure and dependence on the gaze of the other, between involvement and distance are acute in the opening installation of M'as-tu vue?, entitled Douleur exquise, shown to a European audience for the first time. (The work goes back to material from 1984-1985, was first shown in the Toyota Municipal Museum in Japan in 2003. In 2005, an English version was staged in Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. In 2007, the work was shown again in Rotunda 1 de Bonnevoi in Luxemburg, in a new setup designed by Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan. The project is also published in book form (2003) and was staged by Tim Etchells' Forced Entertainment and toured extensively in Europe, in Belgium it was performed in Brussels 18/01/2006 and in Leuven 12/03/2007). In Douleur exquise a lot more seems at stake than a mere experiment with chance, identity, doubling and the game of looking and being looked at, instead we are dealing with extreme emotions and traumatic experiences, as the expression "douleur exquise" means "douleur vive et nettement localisé" (Macet, 2003a: 9). Both parts of this definition are important for Calle's project. On the one hand, it deals with the most intense, acute experiences of pain in a human life. On the other hand, these moments are unique and "localised", that is, they are connected to a concrete time and space, of which the details are forever inscribed in memory. Furthermore, the phrase 'douleur exquise' also connotes the famous surrealist 'corps exquis', the technique of collage in which several authors collaborate to make a poem or painting, by each folding a over a part of a paper. Such a principle of collage is at work in Calle's juxtaposition of different experiences and different subjects.
Trauma, emotion and affect have been hot topics in psychology, literary theory and art theory in the last decade. Susan Sontag's last essay on war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, for instance, is about the representation and the reception of pain and suffering from an ethical point of view. Numerous artistic projects also investigate emotions, such as Bill Viola's The Passions, which ran in the National Gallery in London at about the same time as Calle's exhibition in Pompidou. (22/10/2003-04/01/2004) In Calle's trademark mix of narrative and photography, the pain experiences are on the one hand represented as authentic and radically singular. On the other hand, they are inscribed within an artistic project that maintains a certain ironical distance. In the subsequent forms or incarnations of the conceptual project - I will discuss the installations by Calle and by Gehry and Chan, the book and the performance by Forced Entertainment (Exquisite Pain) - different facets of the problem will be examined: affect and narrativity, authenticity and fictionalisation, pain and pleasure, different roles of the subject.
The installation (in Paris and New York) by Calle and the publication with Actes Sud that accompanied it are structured as a triptych. The first part is the report of a three-month journey to Japan, by train, undertaken by the then 30-year old Sophie Calle.
The prologue explicitly states that the whole project is constituted as a retroactive or belated (re)construction. (see also Bois: 29) Although the past is (re)lived in the present tense, the journey to Japan only acquires its meaning in the light of the breakup that followed it. This traumatic event has ultimately, after all these years, also gotten a different meaning: it has become banal, ordinary, of little importance. The travel narrative consists of photographs, reprinted in the book in different formats, some in colour, others in black and white. The subjects are diverse: travel documents, portraits of fellow travellers and people encountered during the journey, photographs of train compartments and hotel rooms, postcards, letters, polaroids and snapshots of the photographer herself. After the arrival in Japan, the photographs seem to become bigger and more aesthetic. Landscapes, still lives, Japanese rituals, typical objects etc. document the aesthetic confrontation with a foreign, exotic culture. As a whole, the train ride through the former Soviet Union and the fascination with Japanese culture - so popular in the 1970s and 1980s in French intellectual and artistic circles - the report has a certain anachronistic quality to it.
Occasionally the narrator enters the scene, both in the images as in the textual material. A number of facsimiles of travel documents, letters and postcards emphasize the truth-value of the report. The short pieces addressed to "mon amour" offer the reader/spectator a fragmentary glimpse of Calle's experience of the trip. The familiarity of the genre of the travel narrative facilitates the identification process. Although Calle later on claimed to have hated the journey, this is not immediately apparent from the fragments: the letters do reveal a desire for the beloved and a certain anxiety and insecurity, for instance after a visit to "le temple du divorce" ( ) or in her obsession with fortune-tellers, but the narrator is hardly a despairing Barthesian lover. On the snapshots we see her smiling, the letters and entries moreover reveal that her attitude sexual fidelity is not so strict (100). (see Princenthal) Other artistic projects and meetings are mentioned as well, as in the rather lengthy story of the bizarre encounter in Tokyo with the late Hervé Guibert (Calle, 2003: 72-86, see Bois: 32-33) or the project with blind people that Calle is working on ( Les Aveugles, also shown in M'as-tu vue ?). These references are familiar to those following Calle's oeuvre. They reinforce the intertextual network in her work and the autobiographical space that underlies it. (for the notion of autobiographical space, see Lejeune) Still, near the end of the narrative, the expectation of the climax of the reunion is rising, for example in the description of the ritual search for the perfect outfit. Right before the reunion there is an ultimate moment of happiness: "Plus qu'un seul jour. Je n'ai jamais été aussi heureuse. Tu m'as attendu" (194).
A totally different type of tension arises from the bright red stamp "Douleur Jour J-", prominent on each of the panels (or pages). It marks the countdown of the days of the journey, from Douleur Jour J-92, 25 th of October 1984, to Douleur Jour J-1. (on the procedure of the stamp: see Cullinan and Princenthal) This mark is a sign: on the last day, there is the transcription of a telegram of M. in which a rather vague accident is mentioned (which later turns out to be an infected finger). In the exhibition (in Pompidou where I saw it) the negative tension is reinforced or doubled by the visitor who, when cueing along the panels, has to bodily repeat the narrator's impatient countdown for the reunion: " In some ways "Exquisite Pain," which operates between writing and speaking, is as close to performance as to literature: as we walk through it, it is enacted." (Princenthal: 3) When "Douleur jour J-0" is missing, the identification is crudely disrupted.
The next room, the second part of the triptych, contains a detailed reconstruction of the hotel room in New Delhi (in the book this is a faded photograph of the hotel room, dated with red ink, spread out over two pages): the site of the suffering. As long as text and explanation are not provided, the scene is meaningless. The experience of pain reveals itself as dumb, in its radical singularity and inaccessibility. The lack of understanding of the spectator is a kind of echo of the shock of the protagonist at the moment of pain. Only afterwards the missing piece of the puzzle, the narrative of the painful break-up over the phone, is provided and the setting in the previous room can be identified and interpreted.
The function of the banal images and of the somewhat ambivalent narrative in the first part becomes more clear in the light of this. Image and text interacted in the construction of the authenticity of the autobiographical subject, guaranteed by the combination of objective evidence (travel documents, letters, photographs of Calle) and subjective impressions, which facilitates identification. The dominant red stamp, however, transforms the spatial and cultural alienation into a temporal and generic alienation, by pointing out that what was originally meant as a (personal) travel narrative has brusquely and irreversibly turned into something else. In the light of the aftermath, the stamp and the nostalgic images (the train ride, the colourful kitsch objects) as well as the thematic elements, such as the fortune tellers and the blind, acquire a different meaning: the report becomes the story of an announced break-up and the irreparable loss of innocence. (see also Princenthal) The inarticulate question of this first part hence becomes: 'could I, should I, have seen it (coming)?'
Between Therapy and Project
The structure of the third part, "Après la douleur", at first appears to be very similar to the first part. It consists of a series of numbered panels that contain a combination of text fragments and photographs. In a short prologue the principles of this part are explained:
The sudden reversal from chronicle to therapy, or even exorcism, is ambivalently represented in the first line as both a choice ("choisi") and a necessity ("par conjuration"). The future perfect tense self-assuredly expresses the expected ending of the suffering and indicates that the part that will follow is again a retroactive interpretation in the light of what comes after, the 'now' of the prologue, fifteen years later. The retrospective narrating subject not just controls the method and the project, but also the narrative. The terms "method" and "project" suggest, in a similar fashion as the title M'as-tu vue? a threefold split of the subject into a passive suffering subject, an active therapist subject and an artistic controlling subject that almost immediately after the moment of pain sets up a new artistic project. Admittedly, the enterprise is not without danger, but apparently it can be exhumed and used - resuscitated - fifteen years later without a return of the repressed, the affect. Mission accomplished?
In 99 panels a new count starts from 0 to 99. A closer look reveals the crucial structural difference from the first part: two different types of stories, both narrated in the I-form, are alternated. Calle's story of the break-up (on the left page in the book), with the photograph of the red telephone above it, is endlessly recounted. In this way, the reader/ spectator becomes the witness of the slow and painful process of working through. Through repetition, the story gradually loses its shock effect and becomes more and more absurd. This trivializing effect is enhanced by the contrast with the other panels (or pages), in which anonymous others recount their worst moments of pain, combined with photographs of elements from the setting of those narratives. Thus, a bizarre interaction is created between repetition and shock, between pain and embarrassment, between emotional involvement and increasing indifference. The anonymous testimonies are very divergent: chagrin d'amour, death, suicide, the birth of a malformed child, severe depressions. Sometimes, the pain is very physical:
Physical pain is here associated with vulgarity, less elevated or tragic than emotional pain, but at the same time also more objective, suggesting that psychical suffering can be imagined, faked or exaggerated. The phrase "Le reste ne se dit pas" can mean different things: that the affect itself can not be put into words, but also that it would not be suitable to talk about such intimate experiences. Underlying the juxtaposition is the impossible question of an economy of suffering. Pain is radically singular, the quantity and intensity of the affect cannot be measured and yet, some traumas do appear to be more serious than others. In this way, Calle's own moment of exquisite pain is banalized and her goal is reached.
A kind of taboo is attached to the narration of the pain experience, as if the authenticity and the purity of the experience would be contaminated by telling and showing it. The act of narrating itself, of transforming the event into a testimony and a story, involves a kind of shame, as if dramatizing one's own suffering or representing it as tragic is somehow not done.
For this speaker, it is inappropriate to recount your own pain. Telling involves exaggeration and dramatization and creates a distance from the bodily experience ("chair fraiche") of pain or unhappiness. When the speaker ironically regrets not being talented for pain, or refuses to see himself as a tragic hero, this lack of talent is also experienced as a deficiency, as a lack of reality or real existence. Suffering could perhaps close or lessen the distance that the speaker experiences vis-à-vis his life. The paradoxical last sentence, "I have not encountered my story yet" demonstrates the close connection between suffering, narration and subjectivity, and it also indicates the other side of Calle's enterprise.
According to Freud, a feature of melancholia (depression) is the strange pleasure that some melancholics seem to derive a strange kind of pleasure from their continuous complaints and self-pity. (Freud: 433; see also Abraham and Torok's chapter on "Mourning and the Fantasy of the Exquisite Corpse") This repetition can have a therapeutic function: in the continuous expression of his/her misery, the subject gradually regains a certain consistency. This therapeutic necessity is at the basis of Calle's method that is based on a belief in "catharsis as anaesthetic and prophylaxis (to avert future disaster by using the past as a shield)" (Princenthal: 3; see also Gentleman). Talking, expression in this project is equivalent to narrating. Telling implies lucidity (consciousness) and creates distance. The pain decreases, the subject finds a new balance, but at the cost of a loss of reality. Secondly, in the act of narration a new sense of pain arises from the subject's incapacity of holding on to the real, the acuteness of the pain. The loss is at were doubled when the last connection with the lost object fades. The effect of this strategy is the instalment of a chain of distance and affect that also works with force of reversal. For the doubled consciousness turns out to have always already been there. Even during the acute experience of pain the subject was already split in an I flooded by affect on the one hand, and a lucid, observing I that meticulously recorded all the minute details of the instance in the memory on the other hand.
Between Recording and Fictionalisation
The tension becomes very apparent when Calle is talking about her reflex on that fateful night to take a photograph of the hotel room in New Dehli and of the red telephone as messenger of disaster.
Although Calle later on sees this moment as an indication of the banality of the incident ( "It seemed at the time that it was the worst moment of my life - now it seems ridiculous," she says. "Maybe, as my friends point out, I was not suffering that much becasue I was still able to take a picture of the room - with the telephone on the bed - where it happened." (Gentleman: 2)), paradoxically, it is the insignificant details in the account that emphasize the senselessness of the suffering and that reintroduce the affect. The attention to details from the setting also ties up with the first part of the definition of "douleur exquise", i.e., "une douleur nettement localisée". In the other stories as well, details (a building, a car, a house number…) are isolated from the stories by the accompanying photographs as pars pro toto. Christine Macel sees the function of the photographs in Calle's work mainly as pieces of evidence to the text. This perhaps holds true for the travel photographs from the first part of Douleur exquise, but in the third part this indexical character of the photograph is absent because - a few exceptions notwithstanding, such as the photograph of a deceased (237) or the certificate of discharge from the army (255) - the photographs are not authentic. By way of illustration, Calle has produced images with the stories, in which there is no longer any direct connection to the suffering that has been, in a number of cases the pain is even symbolically illustrated by a coloured square (the lime green of a hospital corridor or a white square in the case of the subject that has not yet encountered his/her suffering quoted above). Princenthal calls these images "Warholian" in "her [Calle's] appetite for other people's intimacies", I would go even further and call them "reality effects" typical of realist fiction as described by Roland Barthes: insignificant details in the description intended to enhance the realism of the narrative, which end up underlining the constructed quality of the testimonies.
This is most clear in the last narrative of Douleur exquise. On the one hand, a black panel on day 99 shows how Calle's mourning has come to an end, on the other hand, an almost tragicomic story of a woman who has killed herself after having been falsely accused of stealing a jar of cream in the supermarket. The photograph shows a jar of cream in an open fridge. In the opening of the story, the I-narrator has almost completely disappeared in the indirect speech: "Lu cette brève dans Libération " and the testimonial character of the narrative is abandoned. A story of the newspaper is recounted. The photograph of a banal jar of cream suddenly appears cold and cynical. The juxtaposition of photograph and text unearths an unbearable dimension of fiction in the project, which was of course always already present, for instance in the reconstruction of the hotel room. If the idea of showing and looking at the pain of others entailed certain difficulties, the notion of illustrating and staging pain is one step further. The jar of cream is the ultimate limit of the autobiographical pact underlying the project and reveals how Douleur exquise differs from Calle's other autofictional projects. Because of the emotional charge of its subject, the autobiographical character of the project turns out to be a necessary presupposition as well as a guarantee for the authenticity of the suffering.
Retroactively, the project slides into autofiction and the alternation of I-narrators turns out to have been very deliberately set up from the beginning. The first pain experience that is opposed to Calle's (a young women suddenly left by an older man) almost perfectly mirrors her experience, only the red telephone is replaced by a white wash basin (Calle, 2003: 204-205). And is the red telephone - a popular icon of calamity in the Cold War period - not almost too good to be true? (Princenthal: 2) The effect is further reinforced by intertextual allusions, for instance to the wedding dress mentioned by Calle to emphasize the extraordinary significance of the love affair that came to such a traumatic end (during her first night with M., a friend of her fathers whom she had a crush on ever since she was a little girl and whom she manages to seduce many years later, she wore a wedding dress, Calle, 2003: 210, 214), which reappears in several other projects, draped on a bed (for instance in the installation of bedrooms, "La robe de mariée" and "Chambre de jeune fille" in Autobiographie (1996 in Macel, 2003a: 168) or ironically on Freud's coach (with a more or less similar account of the meeting with M.) in Appointment with Sigmund Freud (1998 in Macel, 2003a: 194). The blatant Oedipal connotations obviously fit in with the Freudian streak of the therapeutic process of Douleur exquise but combined with the previous stagings, the ironical subversion of the subject threatens to tip the confession over the edge of melodrama or slapstick.
Self-staging is a recurrent feature in Sophie Calle's work. That we are dealing here with an ultimate moment of pain does not essentially change this fact: "Les événements heureux, je les vis, les malheureux, je les exploite. D'abord par intérêt artistique, mais aussi pour les transformer, en faire quelque chose, en profiter, - se venger de la situation." (Macel, 2003c: 81) But what about the experiences of pain of others? In another interview, Calle confirms that she did not merely illustrate the narratives but that she also "edited them, producing narratives that are consistent in tone, and, she admits, are as much hers as her subjects" (Princenthal: 3n1). (according to Gentleman, the style or tone of the narratives is what saves the project "from being merely contrived and pretentious") It is therefore no longer possible to distinguish when the staging (and the fictionalisation) begins and how far it goes.
This notion of staging is taken one step further in Forced Entertainment 's adaptation of Douleur exquise for the theatre. Paradoxically, a number of relatively small alterations to Calle's text result in rather different effect. The doubled staging of the theatre performance paradoxically ends up emphasizing the authenticity of the project, in spite of its fictional and postdramatic aspects. The first structural intervention to the text is the cutting of the first two parts of the project, in order to concentrate on the experiences of pain. The photograph of the red telephone is printed on the flyer handed out at the beginning of the show, in a short prologue the prehistory of the trip to Japan and Calle's method are explained by the actors, Cathy Nader and Robin Arthur. Subsequently, they take turns in reading Calle's story (Nader) and the anonymous narratives (Arthur) from a tousled manuscript. The mise-en-scène is minimal and ordinary: two tables with two projectors hanging above them on either sides of the stage, in the centre background a neon sign "exquisite pain". In Nader's lively performance of Calle's versions of the facts, the attention gradually shifts to the act of narrating itself. The theatrical context highlights the use of ironical and self-reflexive terms such as "staging", "setting" and "story" and reinforces the distance between the actress and the role she is reading from the page. In the narratives read by Arthur, the irony is occasionally accentuated, invoking laughter from the audience (which was mostly very quiet on the two occasions that I saw the play).
According to the programme, the show is "intimate and simple" but the detached character of the performance makes for a paradoxical viewing experience. The gap between spectator and suffering subject in the narrative is widened by Forced Entertainment 's mise-en-scène, certainly at first glance. The simple reading of the narratives hampers identification and catharsis. Rather than suffering with the characters on the stage (as the Greek origins of the word 'sympathy', 'sum-pathein', designate), what seems to be at stake here is an appropriation of the pain of others, which somehow feels like transgression. The experience of voyeurism is acute. Moreover, after a while (as the performance is quite long and repetitive) a sense of boredom sets in. And yet, the emotional effect of the stories all but disappears. The strange cocktail of collective malaise within this theatrical context, the realization of distance and detachment, combined with the emotional core of the narratives and the slow repetition, gradually reintroduce the affect.
Although director Tim Etchells indeed tried to avoid the "theatrical" in the performance in order to let the experiences speak for themselves, to keep the drama "small" so to speak, the theatrical - parody, irony, detachment - pervades and perverts the text. Forced Entertainment 's staging never allows to forget that we are dealing with a performance of the stories of others and brackets from the very start the authentic character of the autobiographical experiences. At the same time, the ordinary, bland setting of the play reinforces the universal aspect of suffering, which is very important for Etchells.
This universal character is retroactively confirmed by a seemingly minor alteration of Calle's text. Forced Entertainment' s play does not end with the news story of suicide and the jar of cream, but with a phrase that strongly juxtaposes the anonymous pain experiences against Calle's "accomplished" process of working through. In the last anonymous testimony on day 98, the narrator who lost his father as a child, ends with the phrase: "Sa mort ne fut pas le point culminant de ma douleur mais une bombe à retardement" (Calle, 2003: 273). The trauma is the impossible origin of pain, not the summit. The experience of pain not just installs a "before" and "after" with their different counts, it also sets in motion an ongoing process of fragmentation. No matter how often the story is recounted, no matter how much a subject tries to endow the experience with sense or purpose by formulating and ordering the fragments, the trauma is a delay-action bomb that splinters the subject. The scar remains more than a memory or mark: it is a permanent weakening of the system.
Design: Between Symbolism and Irony
The homely setting and undramatic mise-en-scène of Forced Entertainment 's play deviates from Calle's carefully elaborated exhibition and layout of the book. The installation in Pompidou first and foremost drew attention because of its dimensions. In three very large rooms the panels of part 1 and 3 are hung closely together. In the third room, the set-up is sober and Japanese minimalist: the narratives are embroidered (machine stitched) on grey, silk-like fabric. As narrative time elapses and Calle's story becomes shorter and shorter (the story literally exhausts itself), the black and white contrasts of fabric and letters gradually fade to a play of lighter and darker shades of grey, until background and letters finally coincide. The design is symbolic and complex. To begin with, the fading of the colour represents to the gradual dulling of pain over time. The use of needle and thread refers to the suturing of a wound or trauma: the scar remains visible, but it takes on the colour of the skin. Princenthal points out the connotation of "fabrication": "Moreover, as in all of Calle's work, there is the nagging question of whether she is deliberately embroidering this story, or even (though this seems highly unlikely) making it up out of whole cloth." (Princenthal: 2). Finally, the use of needle and thread can also point at the Lacanian notion of "suture", which can be connected to the principle of the project.
The concept of suture indicates the problematic process of identification or suturing of a subject with the subject position in a story. This is especially clear in classic Hollywood cinema, in which three subject positions can be distinguished. (Silverman: 196-198) First of all, "the speaking subject" or the protagonist of the story: in this case Sophie Calle and the I-narrators of the testimonies. Secondly, "the subject of speech" is the one who is speaking, the subject of enunciation, in other words, the artist bringing everything together in a montage, from a particular point of view that is orchestrated. Finally, the third instance is the "spoken subject", the position of the spectator who is addressed by the narrative. By identifying with the position that is concocted for him/her, the viewer submits to the reigning ideology or to the symbolic order (the Hollywood system or the art circuit). Suture- theory thus points out that the different subject positions are opposed in relations of power. What can be seen and what not is determined by ideology (or by resistance against it). In traditional cinema and by extension in an exhibition, the differences between the subject positions are glossed over, sutured, in order to create an illusion of unity and transparency between the perspective of the character, the camera or the mise-en-scène of the exhibition and the position of the spectator.
In Douleur exquise the suture process creates a constant dynamism of identification and alienation, which is reinforced on the level of the story and on the level of narration by the mise-en-scène. Hence, in the first room, tensions are created between the romantic expectations and the repeated ominous imprint of the word "douleur", between the radical alienation of the red stamp and the recognizable exotism of the travel narrative, between the anachronism of the train journey and the contemporary setting of the installation as opener for M'as-tu vue?. In the second room the radical break or gap must be sutured by the visitor in a retroactive interpretation of what happened. In the third room the continuity of the narrative is disrupted by the alternation of the stories. The anonymous stories are embedded in the greater narrative whole of the exhibition that belatedly threatens to turn into fiction at every moment.
The layout of the text of the exhibition, finally, agains raises the question concerning the representation of the affect, namely the effect on the spectator or reader and the possibility of empathy or catharsis. The light grey fabric cover of the book (very small compared to the huge dimensions of the exhibition) with a small telephone engraved in it, at first brings to mind a little telephone book or agenda. The table of contents is printed in the back in the form of a monthly calendar, with a photograph for each day reinforce this impression. The colours of the cover (grey with red golden letter and edges, inside the colors black, red and white dominate), the format and the ribbon as page marker also remind one of a pocket bible. The symbolic layout annoys certain readers, "t his compelling content is unfortunately compromised by the book's design, which lacks finesse. The stamped pages feel clumsy and careless, where they should feel emotional sincere and the small format (which should evoke intimacy and closeness), lends the work a sense of distance and inaccessibility" (Gerber), whereas others experience the booklet as a comforting object.
Both the book and the exhibition play on a traditional iconography of suffering, also apparent in the structure of the triptych, in which the moment of suffering is central. The set-up of the exhibition - the countdown mechanism, the lack of space between the panels, which force the visitor to cue and the large rooms - bore a faint echo of the catholic ritual of the Via Dolorosa, although the effect seems to be rendered ambivalent. Whereas the catholic, through his emotional experience of Christ's suffering, is taken into the community of Christ, which was founded by that suffering and by Christ's sacrifice in order to atone for our sins, the effect of Douleur exquise is less 'pure'. The contrasts between banality and emotion, between authenticity and fiction, between intimacy and public render us uneasy.
The ambivalence of Calle's project allows us to formulate some reservations to contemporary pleas for art as sacred experience, as in Julia Kristeva's Sens et non-sens de la révolte. According to Kristeva, installations are characterized by their double focus on incarnation on the one hand and on narrativity on the other hand. With the word incarnation Kristeva suggests that the spectator is addressed in his/her physicality: in the installation the spectator participates through the senses (sight, hearing, touch and sometimes also smell). This could result in a kind of communion of spectator and artwork.
The installation moreover incites the spectator to narrate because the sensuous experience is embedded in a story, the grand story of history or a small, personal story: "Une installation nous invite à raconter notre petit roman, à participer, à travers lui et nos sensations, à une communion avec l'être." (Kristeva: 28) Through this combination of physical experience and the transcendent aspect of a story an installation may be capable of bringing about a kind of contact with a deeper core of being and with a community. In this way, the installation can reconnect to a primary or religious dimension, which has, so Kristeva deplores, largely disappeared from contemporary art under the influence of commerce.
At first sight, Douleur exquise perfectly fits this picture, because of its emphasis on narrativity, the carefully constructed design and because of its doubled intent on indiduality and collectivity. Still, its effect is more complex. In its different forms, Douleur exquise demonstrates that there can no seamless identification with the suffering of others. The act of looking, of contemplation, may bring about a state between activity and passivity in which the consciousness becomes hyperactive. In my view, this is what Princenthal suggests when she states that it is the very contradictions, gaps and breaches of confidence in Calle's project that ultimately guarantee its 'truth'.
The physical discomfort and the paradoxical experience of the spectator in the exhibition or in the theatre as it were offer a kind of weak echo of the confusing and conflicting experiences and memories of intense pain. But, then again, the question remains: can pain be exquisite?
Calle's project continually balances on the thin line between emotion and distance, between complexity and banality, between authenticity and exploitation, that is captured in the oxymoron of the project's title, Douleur exquise. The adjective "exquisite" entails a connotation of refinement and uncovers a masochist undertone in the project. The shame that comes with the telling of and looking at pain not only concerns the exhibitionist, exaggerating and deforming character of narration, but also the mysterious, forbidden enjoyment linked to it. The strict rules and scenario's in Calle's work (Macel: 23) and the aesthetic stagings are reminiscent of Deleuze's characterization of masochism. The exquisite enjoyment of the masochist subject consists in an ultimate form of control in its own staged loss of control because the masochist's submission takes place in a strictly defined, contractually determined context that is aesthetic, theatrical and also humorous (the execution of the contract is so extreme that it ultimately undermines and ridicules itself).
A recurrent element in all the stories of Douleur exquise is that the pain was not invited by the subject, the experience is unexpected and traumatic. The subject loses its grip and is thrown into what Lacan calls the real, the brute, unnameable experience of suffering. The staging in its different forms - in narratives, images - is first of all an imaginary attempt to regain control which entails alienation. It is the second degree of order, the aesthetic staging by Calle in the project as installation which creates a tension between affect and concept. The painful experience is lived through, analysed, manipulated and exploited by the suffering, therapeutic and artistic subject, for and through the spectator. We are far removed from a classical catharsis or from a sacred experience. Affects do not completely disappear or 'wane' but they become ambivalent and seem to be perpetually tilting. The disturbing, but also the intriguing aspect of Calle's work resides perhaps in the untragic quality of Douleur exquise. In its stagings, doublings and splittings the suffering subject can no longer be the hero of his/her tragedy and that is a fundamental loss, but at the same time a bizarre kind of (intellectual) pleasure. And yet, at any given moment, at any given place, the story will find us, eventually.
Postscript : Frank Gehry's and Edwin Chan's Mise-en-scène of Douleur exquise
In Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan's most recent mise-scène the threefold structure of Douleur exquise is still present but is dislocated in the gigantic labyrinthine structure, created for the 19 th century industrial hall, reminiscent of other architectural projects that play on mathematical forms enlarged to huge dimensions, such as Richard Serra's shapes in the MOMA. In the labyrinthine subject, the viewer not only easily gets lost, losing the temporal structure of the narrative, s/he is also perpetually mirrored in the reflective surfaces, radically emphasizing his/her role as spoken subject, but also disrupting the carefully constructed process of identification in the course of the narrative, especially in the first part. Like Etchells and Forced Entertainment, Gehry and Chan emphasize the distance between their stagings and Calle's autofictional project, in radically different ways thought. Whereas Etchells opted for minimal theatricality, Gehry and Can enlarged the project to opera-like dimension, with a symbolic reinterpretation of the hotel room in New Delhi (a white plastic folded structure resembling a bed, with the red telephone on it, within a large transparent mosquito-net-like structure hanging from the ceiling, connoting both the veil of a wedding dress and the ephemeral quality of smoke and irreparable loss) at the heart of the labyrinth.
At the outside of the labyrinth, a few new photographs were added to the show, documenting the encounter of Calle and Gehry. Again, this apparent index or testimony of the friendship between Calle and Gehry tilts the project into autofiction. The mediatisation of the encounter undermines Calle's status as guarantee to the reality of the suffering and the affective potential: any aspect of her life, without any distinction, can be turned into material for endless artistic recycling, by herself and by others. (in Prenez soin de vous Calle also turns a painful rejection into a material for art, by literally handing it over to others)
Gehry and Chan's symbolic staging of the project at first sight also seems to emphasize the universal quality of suffering, much like Etchells and Forced Entertainment 's adaptation. However, the aestheticism in this mise-en-scène borders on kitsch and highlights the ironic aspects of Calle's endeavour. On the other hand, the mirroring labyrinth has by now become such a commonplace in postmodern art that it has lost a great deal of its unsettling function. Distracting the attention away from the narratives of the project to the spectating subject and to the spectacular setting (Gehry and Chan's staging and the huge hall seem to take away all intimacy) this staging of Douleur exquise, which, according to the website, is meant to represent the function of memory, perhaps "adds to the beauty and poetic drama of this work", but it also provokes uneasy laughter and confirms Fredric Jameson's early lament of the "waning of the affect" in postmodernism.
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Anneleen Masschelein is a postdoctoral researcher of the FWO Vlaanderen and lecturer literary theory at the K.U.Leuven. She has published on literary theory, W.G. Sebald, D.H. Lawrence and Deleuze and Guattari. Her book, The Unconcept. The Conceptualization of the Freudian Uncanny in Late 20 th century 'Theory' will appear in 2008 with SUNY Buffalo UP.
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