Sophie Calle

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Sophie Calle (born 1953) is a French writer, photographer, installation artist, and conceptual artist. Calle's work is distinguished by its use of arbitrary sets of constraints, and evokes the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability, and examines identity and intimacy. She is recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her photographic work often includes panels of text of her own writing.

After completing her schooling she travelled for seven years. When she returned to Paris in 1979 she began a series of projects to acquaint herself again both with the city and people of Paris and with herself. These sought to construct identities by offering documentary ‘proof' in the form of photographs. Her work was seen to have roots in the tradition of conceptual art because the emphasis was on the artistic idea rather than the finished object. The French writer Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay (1988) that described this project in terms of a reciprocal loss of will on the part of both pursued and pursuer. Another project, Detective (1980), consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle's request) by her mother. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Such projects, with their suggestions of intimacy, also questioned the role of the spectator, with viewers often feeling a sense of unease as they became the unwitting collaborators in these violations of privacy. Moreover, the deliberately constructed and thus in one sense artificial nature of the documentary ‘evidence' used in Calle's work questioned the nature of all truths.

She is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour using techniques akin to those of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. It has also led her to investigate her own behaviour so that her life, as lived and as imagined, has informed many of her most interesting works.

Calle began working as an artist in the 1970s, after traveling the world for seven years. When she returned to Paris, the city in which she was born, she recalls feeling isolated and lost; this isolation inspired her to investigate the lives of the people around her. Her first photographs were of graves marked simply mother and father.

Although much of her work employs voyeurism, Calle has allowed her own life to be put on display as well. She became so intrigued by following her unwitting subjects that she wanted to reverse the relationship, and become the subject herself. She asked her mother to hire a private detective to follow her, without the detective knowing that she had arranged it, with the hopes that his investigation would provide photographic evidence of her existence. [1]

One of her birthday parties serves as an important setting in French memoirist Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest.


[edit] Early works

Calle's very first work involved following strangers around Paris. Calle had been abroad for a number of years and the idea behind this surveillance was initially an attempt to reacquaint herself with the city. However, she soon discovered that observing the behaviour and actions of these strangers provided information with which to construct their identities.

In Suite Venitienne (1979), Calle followed a man she met at a party in Paris to Venice, where she disguised herself and followed him around the city, photographing him. Calle’s surveillance of the man, who she identifies only as Henri B., includes photographs accompanied by text.[2]

The following year, Calle organized The Sleepers, a project in which she invited 24 people to occupy her bed continuously for eight days. Some were friends, or friends of friends, and some were strangers to her. She served them food and photographed them every hour.

One of Calle's first projects to generate public controversy was Address Book (1983). The French daily newspaper Libération invited her to publish a series of 28 articles. Having recently found an address book on the street (which she photocopied and returned to its owner), she decided to call some of the telephone numbers in the book and speak with the people about its owner. To the transcripts of these conversations, Calle added photographs of the man's favorite activities, creating a portrait of a man she never met, by way of his acquaintances. The articles were published, but upon discovering them, the owner of the address book, a documentary filmmaker named Pierre Baudry, threatened to sue the artist for invasion of privacy. As Calle reports, the owner discovered a nude photograph of her, and demanded the newspaper publish it, in retaliation for what he perceived to be an unwelcome intrusion into his private life.

In order to execute her project The Hotel (1981), she was hired as a chambermaid at a hotel in Venice where she was able to explore the writings and objects of the hotel guests. Insight into her process and its resulting aesthetic can be gained through her account of this project: "I spent one year to find the hotel, I spent three months going through the text and writing it, I spent three months going through the photographs, and I spent one day deciding it would be this size and this's the last thought in the process."[3]

In l’Homme au carnet of 1983 Calle elicited the active collaboration of individuals. Having found the address book of one Pierre D, Calle photocopied the contents before returning it to its owner. She then visited and interviewed the people listed, in order to build up a profile of its owner from their descriptions and anecdotes. The results were published in Liberation. At around the same time Calle herself became the willing subject of such investigations. In 1981 at Calle's request, her mother hired a private detective to follow her daughter, photograph her in secret and record her every movement. It was, in Calle's words, an attempt 'to provide photographic evidence of my own existence'.

Another of Calle's noteworthy projects is titled The Blind (1986), for which she interviewed blind people, and asked them to define beauty. Their responses were accompanied by her photographic interpretation of their ideas of beauty, and portraits of the interviewees.

Calle has created elaborate display cases of birthday presents given to her throughout her life; this process was detailed by Gregoire Bouillier in his memoir The Mystery Guest: An Account (2006). According to Bouillier, the premise of his story was that "A woman who has left a man without saying why calls him years later and asks him to be the 'mystery guest' at a birthday party thrown by the artist Sophie Calle. And by the end of this fashionable—and utterly humiliating—party, the narrator figures out the secret of their breakup." [4]

[edit] Later works

In 1996, Calle released a film titled No Sex Last Night which she created in collaboration with American photographer Gregory Shephard. The film documents their road trip across America, which ends in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas. Rather than following the genre conventions of a road trip or a romance, the film is designed to document the result of a man and woman who barely knew each other, embarking on an intimate journey together.

Calle is known largely for works combining texts and photographic images in a cool presentational style; The Birthday Ceremony is her first major sculptural installation and it has been conceived especially for Art Now 14. Although made in 1998 the work has its origins in the years 1980 to 1993 when Calle invented and sustained a series of private and shared rituals around her birthday. These are now manifest as art, demonstrating how closely her life and her art are intertwined. Over this fourteen-year period, aside from the occasional year of disruption, Calle held an annual dinner party on the evening (or around the time) of her birthday. To each celebration she invited a group of friends and relatives, the precise number of invitees corresponding to the number of years of her age, with one additional, anonymous guest nominated by a chosen guest, in order to symbolise the unknown of her future. Calle initiated these dinner parties to ensure that her birthday was remembered each year. They were the most ambitious of a series of rituals Calle had invented to override an obsessive insecurity she experienced in early adulthood. The guests brought gifts, tokens of love and affection, and these Calle displayed in a glass-fronted cabinet, as a constant reminder of this affection. At the end of the year the objects were boxed up and put away, their places taken by the gifts of another birthday dinner party. At stressful moments over the years Calle was able to unpack the boxes and reassure herself of her networks of support. When she became forty in 1993, Calle realised she had been cured of this obsessive insecurity and no longer felt the necessity to recall her friendships and family ties in such a formal way.

The Birthday Ceremony brings together fifteen cabinets based on the medical design of the original, which had been given to Calle by her father. Thirteen individual cabinets and one pair, each contain the gifts of a single year. The gifts are displayed unwrapped and range from the banal to the bizarre. They include works of art, hand made tokens of affection, books and letters, junk and antiques, plastic trivia, items stolen from a restaurant, bottles of wine, chocolates and so on. Encased behind glass they become objects of magnetic desire and frustration to the viewer, who cannot hold, cannot taste, cannot unwrap. On the glass of each cabinet is a list of items. The donors themselves are not always named and it is therefore often impossible to tell if the works of art were given by the artists themselves (probable in the case of Christian Boltanski or Annette Messager, improbable in the case of the late Yves Klein). In some cases it is easy to identify a donor. Calle's mother is clearly responsible for the sensible and substantial gifts of domestic equipment that arrive each year - deliberately too large to display behind glass -and which are represented by the manufacturer's warranty. In other cases a particular theme emerges over time: someone often gives hats, another is interested in bull-fighting ephemera. On occasions, most notably with the fabulous painted-wood angel received on her fortieth birthday, guests join together to share a gift.

Calle first explored this ritual in a photographic work depicting the cabinet and its contents, reducing the annual ceremony and its associated objects to a series of documentary records. The development of the subject and its realisation as a series of installations, creates a work that is both more poignant and more perplexing. The Birthday Ceremony draws our attention to the way in which we construct our identity around secret rituals (from forms of self- indulgence to forms of self-denial) and surround ourselves with objects and activities that give meaning and substance to both our private and our public lives. In transforming personal ritual into public display The Birthday Ceremony also raises questions about the meaning of these objects, each one removed from its customary realm. Each one is evidence of a relationship and a transaction of a particular kind and they are laid out here according to criteria that have nothing to do with traditional museum techniques of classification or display.

Calle asked writer and filmmaker Paul Auster to "invent a fictive character which I would attempt to resemble"[5] and served as the model for the character Maria in Auster’s novel Leviathan (1992). This mingling of fact and fiction so intrigued Calle that she created the works of art created by the fictional character, which included a series of color-coordinated meals.

Auster later challenged Calle to create and maintain a public amenity in New York. The artist's response was to augment a telephone booth (on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison streets in Manhattan) with a note pad, a bottle of water, a pack of cigarettes, flowers, cash, and sundry other items. Every day, Calle cleaned the booth and restocked the items, until the telephone company removed and discarded them. This project is documented in The Gotham Handbook (1998) [5].

In Room with a View (2003), Calle spent the night in a bed installed at the top of the Eiffel Tower. She invited people to come to her and read her bedtime stories in order to keep her awake through the night. The same year, Calle had her first one-woman show at the Musée National d'Art Moderne at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

At the 2007 Venice Biennale, Sophie Calle showed her piece Take Care of Yourself, named after the last line of the message her ex had left her. Calle had asked dozens of women—including an actress, a clown, and a dancer—to interpret the break-up e-mail and presented the results in the French pavilion. [6]

At her gallery shows, Calle frequently supplies suggestion forms on which visitors are encouraged to furnish ideas for her art, while she sits beside them with a disinterested expression.

In November 2008, she will participate in an exhibition "Système C, un festival de coincidence" proposed by the Stéréotypes Associés in Mains d'Oeuvres, Paris.[citation needed]

[edit] Supporters

Calle is admired by several artists around the world, and has been paid homage with retrospectives of her work. Additionally, Calle's text Exquisite Pain was adapted into a performance in 2004 by Forced Entertainment, a theatrical company based in Sheffield, England.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Calle, Sophie: La Visite Guidée (Hardcover), Art Pub, Inc. 1996
  2. ^ Bois, Yve-Alain, "Character Study: Sophie Calle." Artforum, April, 2000, pp. 126–31.
  3. ^ Hanhardt, John G. et al, Moving Pictures: Contemporary Photography and Video from the Guggenheim Collection. (Hardcover) Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (2003)
  4. ^ Experiential Lit: Grégoire Bouillier with Yann Nicol Translated by Violaine Huisman and Lorin Stein - The Brooklyn Rail
  5. ^ a b Auster, Paul et al., Doubles-jeux: Gotham Handbook, livre VII. (Paperback) Actes Sud, 1998
  6. ^ Sarah Douglas (June 11, 2007), A Dizzying Convergence, ARTINFO,, retrieved on 2008-04-23 

[edit] External links

[edit] Bibliography

  • Sophie Calle, M'as tu vue. Centre Pompidou & Edition Xavier Baral, 2003.
  • Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain, Thames and Hudson, 2004. ISBN 0500511985
  • Sophie Calle & Fabio Balducci, En finir. Actes Sud, 2005.
  • Double Game, eds. Paul Auster, Sophie Calle, Violette Editions, 2007. ISBN 1933045698
  • Angelique Chrisafis, 'He loves me not', The Guardian, June 16 2007[1]

[edit] Biography

  • Fabian Stech, J'ai parlé avec Lavier, Annette Messager, Sylvie Fleury, Hirschhorn, Pierre Huyghe, Delvoye, D.F.-G. Hou Hanru, Sophie Calle, Yan Pei-Ming, Sans et Bourriaud. Presses du réel Dijon, 2007.
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