Sophie Calle

At the Institute of Contemporary Art

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January, 1990)

This first American survey of work by the 36 year old Parisian artist Sophie Calle features eight installations combining photographs and text, which are mounted on the walls of the ICA like the pages of an open book or a film script, with stills and dialogue from a black-and-white movie.

Each installation represents a different action or investigation.  In The Sleepers, Calle invited people to sleep in her bed for eight hours while she watched.  In “The Shadow“, she hired a private detective to follow her around for a day.  In “The Blind” she asked people who had been born blind to tell her what their image of beauty was.   In each of these situations, Calle casts herself as a participant in her own work of art and writes her autobiography by observing other people and observing herself observing them.  She follows strangers on the street;  she watches them sleep;  she asks questions about them.  She broods on their every move like a jealous lover or a thief.

Like Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself dressed in various disguises, Calle puts herself  in the picture and becomes, simultaneously, artist and muse, subject and object, beholder and beheld, maker and made. Calle’s work is both verbal and visual.   She says she is not really a photographer but a storyteller who uses photographs to document the stories she tells.

In “Autobiographical Stories“, Calle photographs emotionally and erotically charged objects – the bathrobe worn by her first lover, a painting which hid a mysterious letter suggesting that another man was perhaps her real father, a wedding dress she wore to make love to a man she had admired since she was a child. Here, a painting explicitly hides a secret, rather than revealing it, but the other images don’t tell us very much either.  Like a strip-tease, Calle’s pictures seem to keep promising to tell all, but each revealed secret reveals another secret, and each hidden place turns out to be hiding something else.

Calle borrows elements from the conventions of portrait painting, philosophical investigations, detective novels, the film noir, the nouveau roman, documentary photography, love letters, art movies, B-movies, John Cage’s theories of randomness, and Joseph Beuys’s actions.  She combines all these things in startling ways and whittles them down to elegant meditations on the mysterious spaces between self and other.

Calle’s photographs themselves are often quite ordinary, but they act as catalysts for a profound visual experience, because of the many questions they raise about the act of seeing.  Calle’s art explores all kinds of looking – the spying and prying of journalists, spies, voyeurs, police informants, private eyes, psychiatrists, lovers telling each other their secrets.  She constantly asks, what does it mean to see?

Calle’s obsession with seeing and being seen culminates in “The Blind“.  Here, Calle interviews people without sight to explore the limits of seeing, as Truffaut used The Wild Child or Werner Herzog used Kaspar Hauser — people without language — to explore the limits of language (which Wittgenstein says are the limits of the world).

For “The Blind“, Calle asked people who had been born blind what their image of beauty was.  She photographed them and produced a picture of what they told her they thought was beautiful.   Their answers are poetic images, often of a limitless, sublime beauty which is inaccessible to the eye.  “A starlit sky must be beautiful.”  “The color white.”  “The sea must be beautiful, too.  They tell me it is blue and green and that when the sun reflects it, it hurts your eyes.  It must be painful to look at.”

“The most beautiful thing I saw is the sea, the sea going out so far you lose sight of it.”

Uncorrupted by seeing, Calle’s blind people have a sense of beauty which approaches Plato‘s idea of perfect form – what you see is merely an image of the perfect forms of ideal beauty, that art is merely an image of an image, twice removed from truth.  Yet people crave images and keep on making them.  As Susan Sontag wrote at the beginning of On Photography,

“Humankind lingers, unregenerately, in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit,  in mere images of the truth.”

In “The Blind“, beauty is the mysterious other whom Calle approaches but never reaches.  “The Blind” doesn’t try to capture beauty in a single image, but to chart its mysterious distances.  The prosaic color photographs that Calle produced, to illustrate the images of beauty that the blind described, clearly fail to capture their poetic images of imagined beauty.  Yet Calle is not rejecting art, but exploring its limits.

In “L’Homme Au Carnet”, she writes,

“Paris.  End of June. Street of Martyrs.  I find an address book.  I pick it up, make a photocopy of it and send it back anonymously to its owner.  His name is Pierre D.  I will ask the people listed in the address book to talk to me about him.  Every day, through them, I will get closer to him.”

But like an asymptotic curve which approaches a limit but never reaches it, Calle’s investigations do not bring her closer to Pierre D. — or any of the others she observes. They only chart the distance between them.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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