Published in Hong Kong Tatler, December 2014.
It would be hard to find clearer confirmation of Federico Fellini’s aphorism that all art is autobiographical than the work of Sophie Calle. For more than three decades the French conceptual artist has plucked events out of her life, and the lives of others, to use directly as material for her work. The 61-year-old documents uncensored, raw moments, blurring the boundaries of life and art.
Calle’s work captures the intimate, plumbing the depths of emotion, addressing themes that resonate universally– loneliness, vulnerability, abandonment, rejection, grief. To that end she has followed and photographed a stranger she met at a party in Paris to Venice (‘Suite Vénitienne’, 1980); she’s worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice picking through and photographing the guests’ belongings (‘Hotel’, 1981); she had herself stalked by a private detective (‘The Shadow’, 1981) to provide photographic proof of her own existence; and she filmed her mother’s last dying moments (‘Couldn’t Capture Death’, 2007).
In 2004, when Calle was dumped by her boyfriend via email, she forwarded the dismissive missive to 107 women, including the actresses Jeanne Moreau and Miranda Richardson, asking for their reactions, which more often than not resulted in a merciless evisceration of the letter’s contents and the writer. She also gave a copy of the email to a parrot called Brenda, which subsequently ate it. The work that grew out of that painful episode– a film, photos, performance and text titled ‘Take Care of Yourself’ (from the last line of the email)– was exhibited in the French Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
A common thread runs through all of Calle’s works, a theme she has explored consistently throughout her career. “My work is about something that is missing, an absence,” she explains over the phone from her Paros studio. “A man that leaves you you (‘Take Care of Yourself’); an empty hotel room (‘Hotel’); the blind who don’t see (‘Voir la Mer’, 2011 and ‘The Blind’, 1986); death (‘Couldn’t Capture Death, and ‘Rachel, Monique’, 2012); somebody you follow that you don’t know (‘Suite Vénitienne’).”
The ever-pervasive presence of absence is silent and at times oppressive. A number of her works, such as ‘Suite Vénitienne’ and ‘Address Book’ (1983) are uncomfortably voyeuristic as Calle exposes the secret lives of others, invading their privacy. She goes through personal belongings and address books, and makes public private letters and diaries. But by looking at her work, the viewer is in turn are implicated in this violation, entering the lives of these anonymous others through this public voyeurism.
Calle uses film and photography, which form the nucleus of her work, to document her stories. Her images are always accompanied by text, which is as much a part of her works as the visual, providing a crucial layer of information to what we see and directing how we understand it. It is not the dry writing that often accompanies curated shows in museums in galleries, but evocative and at times elegant, intended to draw you in to her stories. “I choose carefully what I want to say,” says Calle. “I make a text choosing some words and not others. By writing and creating text I already create a distance from what happened.”
These intimate snapshots of life have been exhibited at some the best museums and institutions around the world, including Metropolitan Museum and MoMA in New York; at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; and in 2007 she represented France at the Venice Biennale. It’s an impressive list of accomplishments for a woman who happened upon art par hazard.
After travelling for seven years in the late 1970s, Calle returned to Paris at the age of 26, feeling uncertain about what to do with her life. For a while she worked as a stripper in the Pigalle red- light district (an experience she documented in her 1989 book, ‘La Striptease’) before deciding she would make art– motivated by a desire to ‘seduce’ her art collector father, she explains with Gallic insouciance, unfazed by the Freudian connotations. “I was gone for a long time and was lost. My father was anxious of what would become of me. I didn’t live with him when I was young; I lived with my mother as they divorced when I was three. I saw that art was one way to please him, to seduce him.”
Lost and listlessly walking the lonely streets of Paris, and armed with a camera given to her by her father, Calle started following and photographing complete strangers. “I didn’t consciously make works of art. I was using my camera and trying out ideas…I started following people. And then things just came together.”
This is how her first couple of works came into being– ‘Suite Vénitienne’ and ‘The Sleepers’ (1980), the latter a project in which she invited 24 people to occupy her bed, individually for eight hours each over a week, photographing them every hour and recording their stories. Straddling the realms of the conceptual and the performative, it was quite a different and unexpected kind of art from that collected by her father.
One of her more challenging works, the film ‘Couldn’t Capture Death’ documents her mother’s final moments as she lay dying. Although Calle has nursed a fascination with death since childhood– she would visit graveyards and stage elaborate burial service for her dead goldfish– this work wasn’t driven by morbid curiosity. It was an elegiac homage to her mother (“My mother was obsessed with being the centre of attention, so she liked the idea of the camera”) as well as a way to remain with her until her last dying moment. “I didn’t film her for artistic reasons but because I was afraid she would die while I was in the other room. I just wanted to be sure I captured her last words if she had something to tell me as she was dying.”
However, what she discovered only after her mother’s passing, was that the passage from life to death is elusive and cannot be caught on camera. The viewer, while aware these are the last moments of a dying woman, is never really sure at what point she has taken her final breath. The film is not a voyeuristic and intimate look at her mother’s death, but a meditation on the moment in between.
This month, Calle presents a solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong, a series of works “both old and new at the same time.” Showing at the same time are ‘Madre’ at the Castle of Rivoli in Turin and ‘Cuídese Mucho’ at the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico, both running until February 15. The Hong Kong show, titled ‘Unfinished’, is a two-part exhibition that stems from an old project in the US. The project was initiated in the mid 1980s but remained frustratingly incomplete, and unable to be exhibited. “The main object of the show is the movie that tells 16 years of a search of the artist to complete a project, and at the end realising the failure is the project,” says Calle. Searching. More absence. But like with her break up email, Calle refuses to be the victim of a situation loaded with rejection and disappointment, turning powerlessness into empowerment. “Here I have an idea, but I don’t find it; it’s a failure but I reverse this and I make the success of the work from the failure. To reverse it and make something out of it is a way of overcoming suffering for me.”
A journalist once referred to her as the “Marcel Duchamp of emotional dirty laundry” and often she’s referred to as the French answer to Tracy Emin, but Calle baulks at the tendency to categorize her work as confessional art. “Its not about that at all. I suffer less by using an unhappy event in my life, by going back to it and exhausting it, it has a therapeutic effect in a way. It’s like sharing something that happens to you with your friends. You feel better afterwards,” she explains. “For me to let everybody know that somebody left me and reading their break up letter is not a way to expose myself. It is my life, it happened, but it’s an edited moment of my life and I create something else out of it. I try to make art out of human stories. These stories are my material.”