Nadav Kander on Sophie Calle

October 21, 2008 · Print This Article

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Via Nadav Kander for The New York Times:

Who is Sophie Calle and why is tout chic Paris so intrigued by her weird comings and goings, her obsessively documented and annotated voyages into the interior? Is she a sphinx without a riddle, as Truman Capote said of Andy Warhol, selling solipsism as social commentary? Or a genuine original who has converted the stasis of visual art into the ongoing drama of literary narrative, creating a kind of three-dimensional writing? Or is she perhaps simply an inspired exhibitionist who has been mining her life over the past 25 years as material for loosely conceptualized, viewer-friendly installations that are subsequently published between covers and sold for anywhere from $39.95 to $125?

Her books — the form in which her art is most widely known — are, to be fair, beautifully produced, small works of art unto themselves. One example is the gorgeous catalog of her 2003 retrospective at the Pompidou Center, ‘‘M’as Tu Vue’’ (‘‘Did You See Me?’’); it boasts an ingeniously designed cover in which the artist hides one eye with her hand as though she were trying to make out the spelling of her own name on an eye chart. But the installations that inspire the books are, at first glance, easy to dismiss as slickly packaged songs of the self, shot through with an uninhibited, even violating voyeurism. They have featured everything from glass cabinets stocked with a collection of the artist’s unopened birthday presents garnered from her annual birthday parties to a gentrified phone booth on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison Streets that Calle, at the suggestion of Paul Auster (who, in turn, based aspects of his character Maria in his 1992 novel, ‘‘Leviathan,’’ on Calle), decorated with a bouquet of red rosnovel, ‘‘Leviathan,’’ on Calle), decorated with a bouquet of red roses, a folding chair, an ashtray, a mirror, writing pads and pencils. For a 1998 show called ‘‘Appointment With Sigmund Freud,’’ in which Calle was invited to create an installation at Freud’s house in London, she included photos of her picture-perfect breasts (which, she insists in the accompanying text, were originally ‘‘nothing to write home about’’ but came into their own in 1992), her imperfect nose (which, we learn, her grandparents wanted her to fix) and her wedding dress, laid across the über-analyst’s couch. (Calle was briefly married to a good-looking depressive named Greg Shephard, whom she lassoed into a drive-through Las Vegas wedding and who was her collaborator on a film called ‘‘No Sex Last Night.’’) Many of her exhibits are organized around videos of her seemingly random albeit carefully calculated encounters with the world. One such is ‘‘Twenty Years Later,’’ in which Calle asked her mother to hire a detective to trail her and report on her daily activities, an arrangement that was followed up 20 years later to the day with Calle being tracked, again at her own request, by a sleuth hired by her gallery owner.

What kind of woman, one wonders, responds to being dumped by e-mail not with private turmoil but with a public orchestration of counterrejection? Calle enlisted a throng of women — ranging from police officers, philologists and cartoonists to well-known actresseslike Miranda Richardson and Jeanne Moreau — to analyze her Dear Jane message according to their area of expertise and then displayed the results to great success in an exhibit at the 2007 Venice Biennale curated by Daniel Buren and titled, with mocking reference to the last line of her ex-lover’s communiqué, ‘‘Take Care of Yourself.’’ The exhibit’s thick catalog, jacketed in glossy pink covers, includes four DVDs, an erudite essay titled ‘‘The Exacerbation of Heterosexual Love in the West,’’ poems, drawings, musical notations, a crossword puzzle, a piece of origami handiwork, an encrypted version of the e-mail message, a handwritten letter from her mother that assures her daughter that ‘‘Beautiful, famous and intelligent as you are, you’ll soon find someone better’’ and lush double-page photographs. It opens with some crisp words from the mistress of ceremonies, typed out in a large font on a page with lots of white space: ‘‘I received an e-mail telling me it was over. / I didn’t know how to respond. / It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me. / It ended with the words, ‘Take care of yourself.’ / And so I did. / I asked 107 women (as well as 2 hand puppets / and a parrot), chosen for their profession or skills, / to interpret this letter: / To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. / Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. / Answer for me. / It was a way of taking the time to break up. / A way of taking care of myself.’’

Among the many possible responses to Calle’s work, what emergesmost clearly is that hers is a very contemporary instance of personal mythologizing, of using the material of her own life as paradigmatic. Her art bears the traces of other influences (Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, Orlan and Christian Boltanksi, to name a few) yet manages in its deliberate and singular accessibility to resound with the inner performative self in all of us. At the same time, she is as an embodiment of the postmodern instinct to de-authenticate and expose, showing up her own — and, by implication, our — reality as no more than a simulacrum. She dedicates ‘‘Take Care of Yourself,’’ which opened a little over a year after her mother’s death, to ‘‘Monique Sindler, who plays the role of the mother in this book, a role she recently left behind.’’Monique Sindler, needless to say, was Sophie’s actual mother. It’s the kind of macabre joke, or a grim jeu d’esprit that Calle specializes in, shattering the comfortable division between life and art, real and unreal — all in search of the transposable nugget of experience.

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