French Conceptual artist
Summary of Sophie Calle
Stripper, stalker, spy, and thief are all roles the quintessentially French Conceptual artist Sophie Calle has placed herself in toward understanding her own and others' physical and emotional biographies. Probing our human compulsions that vacillate between secrecy and openness, intimacy and privacy, her constructed "games" ask us to join her in investigating our own lives through a social anthropological lens. Her work redefines what it means to be an artist as not only one who creates, but also one who understands that life in itself, is the greatest form of art.
- 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, where a group of Conceptual writers used similar constraints in literature. Devising "rules" for her own self-compelled games was a regular starting point for her explorations into the human condition.
- Calle's work frequently depicts human vulnerability, using her self and others to examine situations and interactions that blur the lines between personal identity and intimacy. This oftentimes conjures reflection surrounding absence, presence, longing, hope, and other primal emotions.
- The artist is highly recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her total disregard for boundaries, hierarchy, and privacy have been equally criticized and lauded, as she walks a fine line between intrusion and engagement.
- Much of Calle's work is comprised of actions, sometimes taking extended periods of time to enact, absorb, and analyze. The physical evidence of the actions becomes the "artwork" - usually documentary photographs and explanatory texts presented with a coolly detached analyst's eye.
- Whether presenting the lives of strangers or her own, Calle's oeuvre is marked by a confessional-like manipulation, seducing the viewer to become complicit in the very act of watching or participating. They are invited to walk alongside Calle into that tense place between depiction and exploitation.
Biography of Sophie Calle
Sophie Calle was born into an intellectual and creative household in 1953 Paris, where she experienced an unconventional childhood. Her oncologist father, Robert Calle, was a renowned art collector and former director of the Nimes' Carré d'Art, a contemporary art museum. Her mother, Monique Sindler, was a book critic and press attaché, later described by Calle as "the wildest mother, who was always center stage." In fact, she would later become a huge subject of her daughter's work, as in the installation Rachel, Monique, (2014) which was a tribute to the life and loves of her mother, featuring a video of the final moments of her life.
Important Art by Sophie Calle
The Hotel features a series of twenty-one diptychs comprising photographs and text on paper. Evoking the aesthetic of earlier Conceptual art, the work documents details of the lives of others, or more precisely the lives of anonymous guests of a Venetian hotel as seen by the artist herself, posing as a chambermaid at the hotel for several weeks in the Spring of 1981. In the upper piece, the color photograph shows a bed and headboard which elicit the faded grandeur of Venice, the carved wood, modestly patterned wallpaper, and sober yet satin bedcovers suggestive of the nostalgic time-worn wanderlust and romanticism that continue to draw countless visitors to the city. The text underneath confirms our sense of temporary absence and voyeurism hinted at by the empty hotel bed.
The artist's observations dated over three days, record details of the unseen hotel guests: their belongings, their activities, and their correspondence. For example, in the entry for Sunday February 22nd, Calle writes: "At night, he wears light cotton green pajamas, and she, a blue flannelette nightie. There's a suitcase on the floor. Inside I find several plastic bags filled with medications and a book, Venise et ses trésors d'art." Separately, the photographs in the lower section of the work document the guests' suitcase, slippers, the towels as they left them in the bathroom, their luggage, their clothes hanging in the wardrobe, and a postcard ripped up and put in the waste paper basket that the artist has read. The images suggest an objective detective-like stance by Calle.
As with much of the artist's work, perhaps L'Hôtel says more about Sophie Calle than it does about the anonymous hotel visitors. It is a prime example of her contribution to Conceptual art with her mode of taking a nominal proposition and carrying it out through the production of a work. It highlights her synonymous incorporation of photography, documentary, and chance and posits the artist in a role similar to an anthropologist, seeking clues and exploring mysteries about specific specimens of humanity. This pointed study of strangers and herself would inject a "confessional" vein into the world of Conceptual art, in which personal lives and their ephemera were considered worthy fodder for exploration. A similar strategy was adopted by other contemporary women artists, perhaps most notably, Tracey Emin.
Originally published in French as an artist's book in 1980 and reissued in 2015 by Siglio Press in English, Suite Vénitienne epitomizes Sophie Calle's idiosyncratic, documentary-style text and photography in an eloquent blend of fact and fiction. The artist writes: "For months I followed strangers on the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them. At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. I decided to follow him."
The book documents the artist's pursuit of the man, an equally enigmatic Henri B., around Venice in diary-like text and black and white photographs. The images and the textual narration describe the two main "characters" in a variety of situations: Calle in a blonde wig in Piazzo San Marco, Henri B. holding his hand up to hide his face from the artist's photographic gaze. Other inhabitants of Venice take their place in the story, a boy in a feathered headdress, a flower delivery boy emerging from an alleyway obscured by a vast bouquet, women accompanying Henri B. Venice itself becomes a significant feature, with its Piazzos, bridges, hotels, labyrinth passageways, and carnival atmosphere.
Calle's documentation of secrecy and disguise in Venice is full of masks (wigs, hands, headdresses). Perhaps it is no coincidence that she chose carnival time as her setting for this at once playful yet predatory chase, with its framing of mystery and suggestions of unrealized desire. The stream of consciousness writing and photography of Suite Vénitienne adds to the obscurity of its premise, prompting more questions than it answers, an ambiguous stance that is key to much of Sophie Calle's work.
The work also showcases the way Calle co-opted the world of literature and more specifically fiction, as a tool to create art. She was, in fact, creating narratives full of unfolding characters much in the way that a novelist discovers his or her own stories. This blurring of genre into a whole new form of performative art making was radical at the time. Although Calle has been criticized widely for invasions of privacy such as this, her actions provoked further reflection on the liberties of being an artist and the thin line between creative exploration and exploitation in art.
For this work, Sophie Calle's destination moved from the romance of Venice to the economically depressed streets of New York's South Bronx. This time, Calle's project involved asking strangers to take her to a place special to them. The result was a series of photographs taken over a day, featuring portraits of residents of the city in their chosen destinations including a grammar school, a bank, and a patch of land blessed by the Pope. The photographs are each accompanied by a text written by the artist. The work offers a portrait of hope in the face of visible economic and social poverty.
As if to further complicate the history of this of this piece, graffiti artists broke into the gallery in the Bronx the night before the exhibition opened, and tagged the gallery, adding another layer to the series, which now resides (and still bearing the graffiti marks) in the permanent collection of the Bronx Museum.
Unlike her detective-style work with strangers, this piece showcased the artist's equally passionate impetus to enroll people into her projects in a similarly anthropological way that would allow for an expression of human commonality in shared experiences. This "voice of the people" type of art would go on to influence later artists like the French JR, who pastes massive-scale images of townspeople onto the buildings and structures of their community to give an intimate glimpse of its unique personality and concerns.