From Contemporary Artists. 5 ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001
Sophie Calle (b. 1953 Paris, France)
With no formal art training, conceptual artist Sophie Calle first came to the gallery world in 1979 through the suggestion of a critic and curator who had learned of Calle’s obsessive-compulsive documentation of strangers’ lives, whom she followed secretly through the streets of Paris. That year, feeling lost and directionless after returning to her now-unfamiliar hometown from seven years of travel abroad, she had begun trailing randomly chosen individuals in hopes of developing, like them, a comfortable routine. The photographs and notes she took on these excursions (in much the same style of Vito Acconci’s earlier Followings) culminated in works such as her 1980 piece, Suite Vénitienne. In this piece, begun after she serendipitously met one of her city “guides” at a gallery opening, Calle secretly followed the subject on a trip to Venice. Using wigs to disguise herself and mirrored lens attachments to take photographs of her subject without his knowledge, she compiled her imagery and text from the two-week trip into an exhibition. She returned to Venice the following year for another fact-finding mission, this time, serving as a chambermaid for three weeks at a hotel, during which time she documented and photographed the belongings of the guests whose rooms she cleaned. L’Homme Au Carnet (1983) took her spy ring to new extremes. After finding a lost address book on a Paris street, the artist photocopied its pages before sending it back to its owner, then began calling those within its pages, asking them for information about its owner, who had left the country to work in Norway. Calle then compiled her findings and photographs into monthly columns for the French newspaper Liberation, expanding outside participation in her work to include not only “informants” but a large, popular audience.
Recently, however, Calle has more frequently turned her spy lens toward herself, creating works in which the artist’s own life and memories are presented for both the artist’s and audience’s scrutiny. Double Blind (1993), a video collaboration with her then-lover Gregory Shepard, documents each artist’s perspective on their doomed romance during a cross-country trip across the United States. The exhibition and book Double Game (1998) repeats this pas à deux, this time through a call-and-response collaboration with writer Paul Auster, whose character Maria Turner in the novel Leviathan was inspired by Calle herself. The first section is a brief retrospective of the various Calle works that inspired Auster to invent Turner’s in the novel; in the second section, Calle documents herself acting out her fictional alter-ego’s performances from Leviathan; and in the third Calle documents her enactment of performances that Auster conceptualized specifically for her to enact for Double Game. True Stories (or Personal Museum, 1996) also opened up the artist’s history as an object of study, this time in the form of a personal “retrospective” not of artworks she created but objects she accumulated that symbolize events in the artist’s life—a shoe stolen as an adolescent, her first lover’s bathrobe, a wig from her job as a stripper. The works are accompanied by intensely personal text on both the gallery walls and a script read by the artist on a personal audioguide, explaining the significance behind the objects. This interest in the museum as not only a repository for objects, but a site of memory and meaning led to the Absence, Ghosts, and Last Seen series, which address curatorial issues as well as the subject of loss, in their attempt to “reconstruct” removed or stolen objects from museum collections through wall texts comprised of museum visitors’ and guards’ memories of the works.
The significant constant in Calle’s work is also that which inevitably makes its viewers most uneasy—her detached and highly formal presentation of the often unflattering and messy reality of life, even as she attempts to undermine that same reality through her cool, scientific tone. Although she superficially appears to master her subjects’ or her own awkward lives, her efforts to do so are always thwarted—the detective is discovered, the chambermaid is caught peeping, the witness reveals too much—and the audience oscillates between cringing at the intimacy of her findings and at their own complicity in her voyeurism. Calle’s dual role as an artist who both controls and is and victim to her own desire to look is often read as containing a feminist subtext, considering the Freudian belief in women’s inability to take part in such scopophilic pleasures. By asserting the possibility of a female “gaze” in the economy of visual pleasure, Calle’s work suggests the potential of women seizing its power.
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