Therapy: Looking at Sophie Calle through I Love Dick

by Alexandra Kingston-Reese


Perhaps it was “the desert wind that went to our heads that night”, Sylvère writes, “or maybe the desire to fictionalize life a little bit” (10)—and so with desire that begins the conceptual project that becomes the very text of the novel. In a fax “never sent” to Dick, the eponymous character in Chris Kraus’ cult novel I Love Dick (1997), Chris and Sylvère propose Invasion of the Heart Snatchers: “Basically our idea was to paste the text we’ve written all over your car, house and cactus garden. We (i.e. Sylvère) would videotape me (i.e., Chris) doing this—probably a wide shot of all the papers flapping in the breeze. Then, if you like, you could enter and discover it” (28). Although they never send the fax, they do suggest the same installation to Dick over the phone. Despite their attempts of actualization, in the end The Invasion of the Heart Snatchers exists as concept without form. As Sylvère observes sadly, the form will “never be fulfilled” so long as Dick “never answer[s]” (52)—and indeed, he never is “game” (28) enough to collaborate. And yet, the mere suggestion of the installation enables a vivid imaginary realization—we can see Dick’s house set against the Californian desert landscape in Antelope Valley, adorned with the letters that make up the first half of the novel. We can see Chris “past[ing]” page after page to the walls of the house, Dick’s “car”, and “cactus garden” (28). The pages might flutter “in the breeze”; the sunlight waxing and waning as the mid-December day passes, casting long shadows across the scene. Because “the piece is all about obsession”, we can imagine Dick’s performed reaction as he “enter[s] and discover[s]” his house, car, and cacti consumed by more than “50 pages” of evidence of unrequited love. And because Sylvère planned to film this installation, with “a wide shot”, we can envision viewing the silent performance projected onto the white walls of a gallery space. The novel’s brief description of Chris and Sylvere’s artistic intention simulates the very texture of the artistic enterprise without ever actualizing its atmospheric details in prose.

Perhaps this is too much to read into a sketched proposal of an art event that never happens, but this is conceptual art after all, where, in Sol LeWitt’s famous definition, “the execution is a perfunctory affair”. If not installation art, then what form could best draw out the letters’ experiential force? If the somatic physicality of the installation performed through the body is curbed by the literary form it eventually takes, how can narrative prose foster, rather than subsume, the conceptual emphasis on aesthetic process? Theorizing invention and intellection instead of ‘execution’, we find the novel attempting to absorb the essence of Invasion of the Heart Snatchers: “what the work of art looks like isn’t too important”, LeWitt explains, “it is the process of conception” rather than “perception” that holds the artist’s attention. And so Sylvère speculates that “these letters seem to open up a new genre, something between cultural criticism and fiction”, formulating distance between the emotion of Chris’ artistic act and the cool logic of formal methodology; her apprehension about first-person expression is immediately framed by its possible reception, reconfigured as a “kind of confrontational performing art” (27). Exposing the fissures between fictional genres and critical ones—just as the form lends itself to installation and the novelistic—imparts an exegetic air to the novel’s descriptive and narratorial impressions of artistic sensibility and desire. Which is to say, the novel encloses upon itself with tailored interpretative methods constructed by its characters’ own aesthetic motivations—and the urge to acquiesce is tempting: “if nothing else, you must agree that Chris’s letters are some new kind of literary form. They’re very powerful” (242).

Mind you, Chris’ own reflections on what she is doing expose an artistic sensibility that is explicitly tied to the female psyche. Hers is a new genre but equally a part of what she calls a “Lonely Girl Phenomenology”—something that denotes the way she thinks about making art more than formal method, striking a dissonant chord with external interpretations of her project—tightening the already fluid autobiographical elements of the novel’s characters and events. It is not surprising that “Lonely Girl Phenomenology”, refracted through a fictionalized version of the author herself, has long been one of Kraus’ self-described philosophies of artistic practice. Kraus’ second novel, Aliens & Anorexia (2000), destabilizes the struggles of self-expression further. When showing her film-art to John Hanhardt, “then the film and video curator at the Whitney”, the narrator wonders “why intelligence and courage were considered negative attributes” in her art where “beauty, criticality, and narrative resolution” were valorized (150). As Joan Hawkins argues, “the artistic problematique posed by” much of Kraus’s writing “is the degree to which narrative and formal convention should dictate ‘art’.” This criticality operates, as Chris calls it in I Love Dick, at the “Third Remove” (14)— the distance at which the artist can inhabit the art making process while simultaneously reflecting analytically on the performance of it. For Chris, “art involves reaching through some distance” (14).

Characteristically for Kraus’s art, then, the novel traces networks of distance and distances, both formal and affective. Though eventual settling on the form of novel for the project, Chris and Sylvère’s exposé of desire and their pursuit of reciprocation find a vibrant initial model in the conceptual art practices of “Calle Art” (28), the name for Sophie Calle’s artworks that the artist described in an interview in 2009 as imitating “open books on the wall” (Figure 4.2). What we can locate in I Love Dick’s phenomenological approach is the contemporary novel’s in-built investment in the critical language and structures used its own interpretation. Just as Chris and Sylvère’s project in the novel gathers conceptual momentum, the ambition to merge display and novel form is visually evident in the pages of I Love Dick too; the novel’s fragmentary typography arranged as if an exhibition. Her textual installations, easily straddling both book and exhibition form, for all their formal experimentations nevertheless situate art as, in Calle’s words, “a way of taking distance” in order to “suffer less”. Chris’ attempt to “occupy… the wall” rather than the page, too, seeks to transform the “therapeutic aspects” of ordinary suffering to mobilize the artwork toward something like conceptual love, attaining higher artistic truth as it evacuates the personal.

Calle’s art has never seemed to me confessional: there’s nothing about it that seeks to absolve shame in religious conversion. There’s something about it that memorialises the emotions there but this memorialisation doesn’t apologise. The collection on display at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017 exhibition at the Photographers Gallery in Soho, London illuminates how though art may begin as therapy—as artist working through something—what ends up on the wall doesn’t care about this emotional catharsis. The show included some of her most seminal work, but she also created a new work—My Mother, My Father, My Cat—that deals with the death of all three. Extracts from her mother’s diary are juxtaposed with a photographic portrait of Souris, her cat, tucked away in a cat-sized coffin. And yet, the tone is, as always, playful. Although “pathological or therapeutic aspects exist” in the work, they are “just catalysts.”

“It’s true that when I speak in public, everyone asks me about life and I always have to bring them back to the fact that it’s a work of art. The difference with many of my works is the fact that they are also my life. They happened. This is what sets me apart and makes people strongly like or dislike what I do. It is also why I have a public beyond the art world. I don’t care about truth; I care about art and style and writing and occupying the wall. For me, my writing style is very linked to the fact that it is a work of art on the wall. I had to find a way to write in concise, effective phrases that people standing or walking into a room could read.” — Sophie Calle

Distance and absence become something of a desirable-but-unattainable protective shield for Kraus. In an essay on Calle in 2001, Kraus argues that by “[i]nvestigating others through their traces, Calle herself is invisible” (175). Because “the subject of Calle’s investigations is someone she is not particularly interested in”—which in turn “makes the work conceptually clean”—“Calle’s work is never considered offensive, objectionable” (177). Though she blurs the line between stalking and documentary in Suite Venitienne (1983), her work nonetheless “circles on absence” (175). Moreover, because Calle is not present nor does she “address us directly”, she “does not embarrass us” (175). The tenor of Calle’s reception could hardly be further from Kraus’s conceptualization of female writing: absence is almost impossible to create in literature because when “[w]riting is too much like talking”, “[p]resence is never far away from a demand for recognition: do you see me?” Moreover, although “we are relieved” that Calle, “as absent-investigator”, doesn’t “explicitly assert [her] presence”, for a female writer like Kraus no such relief is possible. Which is why she so vehemently rejects the characterization of I Love Dick as confessional: “‘Confessional’” of what? Personal confessions? There’s a great line from a book we published by Deleuze: Life is not personal. The word ‘confessional’ is not a good descriptor of my work.” But why not? Today, confessional writing has generated fervent interest in audiences across the world: from Leslie Jamison to Sheila Heti to Rachel Cusk to Knausgaard, the most critically lauded of them all. They even all have the adjoining legal scandals around their writing echo Dick’s response in the novel, let alone the ‘real’ Dick’s (cultural critic Dick Hebdige) reception of the novel in 1997.  I Love Dick argues for a new attention to emotional vulnerability that doesn’t shelve it naïvely into confession, asking “Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it’s neuroticized and personal; when it feeds back on itself? Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” What seems so repulsive about the term is how it traps female subjectivity within a certain kind of “critical misread[ing] of a certain kind of female art” (191).