Sophie Calle (Paris, 1953) is a conceptual artist who´s complex process in producing work has caught my attention not merely because of the quality of it but also because of the way she presents it. Combining photography and text (the written part being the most substancial part overall, I would say), Calle´s illustrates stories that go beyond what would be considered politically correct, exploring her subjects with a mixture of scientific data gathering and romantic delusions that are not as such; giving both the impression of self detachment and deep implication on the matter.
I first came across Sophie Calle´s work called L´Hôtel (The Hotel, 1981) where the artist (who started working as a chambermaid in a hotel only with the purpose of creating this piece) documented with notes and photographs the belongings of the guests. She would record what and where certain objects were found in the room, take pictures of the beds, read through personal diaries and creating a portrait of the owners through her findings. As I discovered later, this was not the only occasion when Calle created a portrait where the sitter is absent.
The story behind L´Hôtel started earlier in 1979, when she returned to Paris after seven years and began following strangers as her way to decide where to go. Like this, she followed a man who she later was introduced by an acquaintance, and heard about his imminent trip to Venice where she followed him over the course of 2 weeks and documented his movements. Once again, there is a strong relationship between the images she took of the man (who she refers at as Henri B.) and the diary like entries she recorded on her notes. In Suite Venitienne (1980) Calle spends long hours waiting for Henri B outside his hotel as well as interviewing the people he encounters (shop assistants, waiters…) and gets to fantasize with the idea of breaking into his room. Despite how wrong these thoughts might sound, she points out that little they have to do with romantic love, but with the obsession created by the rules she imposed herself in her assignment of following him. A year later, she got a job as a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel.
Soon after L´Hôtel, Sophie decided to reverse the roles and made her mum hire a private detective who would follow her to “provide photographic evidence of my existence” (Sophie Calle, 1981). The final piece, called La Filature (The Shadow, 1981) includes the detective´s report with images and annotations on Sophie´s activities beside her own recording of what she was doing. Even though Sophie did not exactly know when the detective would follow her, she claims she “was not trying to do weird things” but she “just did everything in an intense way” (Sophie Calle, 1993). The truth reflected in her diary notes is that she performed for the detective, visiting some meaningful places and getting the detective somehow involved in activities of her choosing. As she did in Suite Venitienne, it could be said that Calle documents and directs social interaction by setting up the rules of a game where she is the only one who acknowledges them, but also giving herself permission to blindly follow whatever the experience brings.
As I mentioned earlier, Sophie plays with the way she portrays her subjects, who are often not aware of being part of her art processes. L´Homme au Carnet (The Address Book, 1983) is probably the more controversial of her works and the one that the artist regrets. While working as a columnist for the French newspaper Libération, she started writing about a man who’s address book she found on the street and copied. She then contacted the people in the book and interviewed them, gathering information such as the man´s habits, likes and dislikes, places he enjoyed visiting or eating out, his personality etc, and published them as a serial. Needless to say, the man was not particularly happy about this once he found out. It is morally questionable whether the need justifies the means here but what Sophie Calle did in L´Homme au Carnet is a very clever and creative exercise of portraiture without even knowing the subject.
These are only some of her series, which are many. Her later pieces are a lot more introspective, exploring herself in an intimate way through life experiences and in the same way she did before with others but maintaining that distance and detached style of previous works. Integrating image (photography or video) with text remains an important feature of her work and in some of her publications such as “True Stories”, the written word seems to conduct most of the narrative, making the reader questioning the authenticity of some of the images, even of some of her stories. Other works that I love are “The Birthday Ceremony” and “Anatoli” but I would reserve these ones for future entries and after doing some more planned reading on her oeuvre as there is so much to explore behind Sophie Calle. On the book “The Reader” various authors comment on her work, including also some interviews that provide a good insight of the apparent complexity of her work (and her personality).
– Baudrillard, J. (2009). Sophie Calle: The reader. 1st ed. London [England]: Whitechapel Gallery.
– Calle, S. (2016). True stories. Arles: Actes Sud.
– Cotton, C. (2014). The photograph as contemporary art. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
– Tate. (2017). Sophie Calle born 1953 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sophie-calle-2692 [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017].