LUCY IVES GIVES SOPHIE CALLE A CALL
In a cross-continent phone conversation, one author traces the narrative artist’s evolution through her books
I was digging up lilies when someone I live with came outside and said: ‘Sophie Calle’. A cordless telephone was indicated. I realized, after a moment, that he meant that Sophie Calle – the ‘narrative artist’, a term she herself approves – was on the line. I ran to answer, as you do, I’ve come to understand, when Calle is calling.
It was a little after midnight in France. Calle wondered if, perhaps, I wanted to reconvene another time, given I was panting. I told her that I thought we should seize the moment. I was thinking of the missed connections in her work: a first date that takes place a year late in her autobiographical vignette ‘The Husband’, included in True Stories (2018); the lover whose agonizing failure to appear she relentlessly narrated and re-narrated for Exquisite Pain (2004). I worried that, if I were to delay now, I’d never hear from her again. It didn’t exactly make sense, given all Calle’s communications with me thus far had been prompt and direct. In response to my baroque self-introductory message, for instance, she’d replied with a phone number and just two words: ‘Call me?'
Over the next 90 minutes, Calle spoke to me about the origins of her practice and the enhanced agency her work has given her over the years. Critics sometimes reference Calle’s dislike of elaborate explanations of the motivations and meanings of her combined texts and images. A line from a 2002 interview with Fabian Stech published in Kunstforum International – ‘Let’s say I’m a conceptual shop girl, or shop-girl-ish conceptualist’ – may be cited. In a not-entirely-flattering catalogue essay for Calle’s 1991 exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, writer and photographer Hervé Guibert described her, despite her bourgeois origins, as ‘a shop girl in search of impossible, eternal, perfect love’, and you wonder if she appropriated the sobriquet from him. In my own interactions with her, I found that Calle’s reputation for aplomb – or faux-naïveté, depending on whom you ask – was, in a sense, justified. Calle was not her own interpreter. She would reveal little to me beyond what I could already divine for myself, as a viewer and reader of her work. Yet, in another way, she shared more: her reflections were personal, revealing if not precisely autobiographical.
Many of Calle’s pieces – like early works by Vito Acconci and Adrian Piper, to whom she is occasionally compared – concern the act of following. Calle told me there was a pragmatic motivation for her pursuits in such well-known projects as Suite Vénitienne (Venetian Suite, 1983), for which she followed a stranger to Venice, documenting the stalking process in writing and photographs, and L’Homme au carnet (The Address Book, 1983), Calle’s portrait of a man generated through interviews with individuals included in an address book he had lost on the street. She told me: ‘When you do the work I do, you create situations that are emotional.’ Her aim, she said, in generating interpersonal dynamics that suited her artistic fiat, was to experience relationships in which she was ‘not dependent’. Of the duration of such relationships, she explained: ‘I decide. When it was over, it was just over.’ Somewhat paradoxically, the whole point was not to become involved. Calle accorded an intense attention to the men she pursued, surpassing the regard we tend to think is normal in a romantic encounter. Her gaze was possibly obsessive and definitely logistical: it involved the use of disguises, hidden cameras, international travel and numbing administrative labour in the form of endless phone calls and interviews.
I mention our conversation – which, in another act of mild control, Calle asked not be reproduced here – so that you know what sort of reader of her work I am: I choose to be unsuspicious, even as I admire what Calle’s most suspicious interpreters have discovered in her practice. My favourite among these, the art historian Yve-Alain Bois, wrote a lovely, if periphrastic, essay on Calle titled ‘Paper Tigress’ (2006) in October. ‘She undermines the foundations of her “person”,’ Bois writes. ‘She only gives shape to this mask in order to dispel it as an illusion.’ Linda Nochlin is less patient in ‘Sophie Calle: Word, Image and the End of Ekphrasis’, a previously unpublished essay collected in Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (2015). She considers Calle’s hard-to-categorize displays at once ‘annoying and provocative, seductive and boring, dependent often on personal narrative but refusing emotional closeness’. Of course, after this ambivalent salvo, Nochlin expends several thousand words on a painstaking reading of ekphrastic tendencies in Calle’s texts and images. According to Nochlin, Ghosts (1989–91), for which Calle asked museum workers to describe missing or stolen canonical works of art by male artists, ‘unintentionally’ creates ‘an unconscious feminist response to the Great Art of the museum and its authorized discourses’. Like Bois, Nochlin finds Calle lacking: a mask instead of a person, an unconscious response instead of deliberate critique. Did Calle mean, in Ghosts, to indicate the troubling absence Nochlin herself identifies in her celebrated essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ 1971)? Or, does Ghosts, with its tendency to humorously minimize works by Pierre Bonnard and Johannes Vermeer – as one interviewee remarks of Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath (1936): ‘Nothing special. It’s a nude in the bath in the water’ – just coincidentally function as an inquiry into what we venerate by way of immensely valuable art? To extrapolate: is Calle in control?
The answer is yes. But the answer is, also, no. As a thunderstorm traverses the valley below my house and our connection begins to drop in and out, Calle tells me that the responses her prompts elicit – the phrases, feelings, points of view – are variously groomed, edited. For Transport-amoureux (2007), a work seldom discussed in the literature on Calle, the artist invited commuters at Jeanne d’Arc metro station in Toulouse to submit personal notes regarding missed encounters. These messages were then displayed on screens throughout the station. I mention to her that the listings website Craigslist once hosted these sorts of communications, and that I used to read them for entertainment and to try to make sense of the world, that 2007 was probably the peak of my engagement. I say I don’t really know what’s on Craigslist these days, although it seems to have changed a lot since 2018’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in the US and the demise of the ‘Personals’ section. ‘Yes,’ Calle says. And here she tells me that it was necessary to moderate the Transport-amoureux messages, that someone read and approved them before they were broadcast.
This case of official oversight points to the way in which Calle’s work, even if possessed of a distinct lightness that some have received as naivety or dilettantism, co-exists warily with various legal and quasi-legal regulations related to property, privacy, obscenity and public space. Her writing deftly excavates discursive regions in which the personal becomes confused with authority. For her installation and publication Que faites-vous de vos morts? (What Do You Do with Your Dead?, 2019), she invited visitors to her 2017 exhibition Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis! (A Fine Double, Your Honour!) at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature to reply to the titular question on the pages of a blank notebook. The handwritten responses were reproduced as received, without, as far as I can tell, editing or culling. Yet, this in itself is an editorial choice, since it leaves intact so much repetition and banality: over and over, writers (probably children) gleefully explain that they ‘eat’ their dead: ‘On les mange!’ Elsewhere, the predictable necrophiliac surfaces: ‘On les encule,’ which I won’t translate. More earnest respondents describe mnemonic haunting and magical thinking. Throughout, there is a striking lack of description of protocols for the disposal of dead bodies and of questions around the official regulation of physical decay – an absence that renders the state unsettlingly present. As with the mechanics of birth, Western society seems to prefer to acknowledge the logistics of death only when they are absolutely unavoidable, and then to forget them as quickly as possible afterwards.
More frequently discussed are emendations to Calle’s Suite Vénitienne. At the publisher’s request, the photographs of ‘Henri B.’ – himself a photographer and filmmaker who was scouting locations in Venice during the two weeks Calle stalked him in various disguises – were re-taken by the artist on a subsequent trip, using a male friend as stand-in. The year of Calle’s original visit to the city was also changed. These alterations were undertaken to prevent a possible lawsuit – to relocate, as it were, the project within a credibly fictional realm, even though the work’s force comes from the reader’s belief that they are encountering indexical traces of a real act of obsession, as arbitrary as it is actual. Calle did this for no reason, you might think, even as you marvel at the boldness it took and the odd and highly unstable interpersonal dynamics generated. Fortunately, our fantasy about Calle’s following ‘Henri B.’ is hardly punctured by the changes. Indeed, the editing may even serve to heighten our curiosity. If it’s not real, why does it feel so real? But you should know, as Calle told curator and editor Bice Curiger for ICA London’s ‘Talking Art’ series in 1993, that there is always a ‘lie’ in each of her works: ‘It is what I would have liked to find and didn’t.'
Far from stumbling upon a space of writing in which the factual and the imaginary lose their distinctness, Calle ended up here very much by desire and design. Critics often gesture towards the similarities with surrealist and situationist relationships to urban space and questions of chance when attempting to unpack Calle’s motivations and techniques. But, whereas doctrinaire surrealism compelled the viewer or reader to confront the hypocritical prudery of modern culture, and situationism sought to address the presence of authoritarian narratives in the built environment, Calle’s claim is not really on or about larger systems, except in that they happen to figure in her strategies as raw material. Calle aims at a more subtle human mechanism, one that goes by various names: attachment, repetition, obligation. I’d add another term you see less frequently in the writing on Calle: inheritance. Even as her project takes place in public, it is often about outing the functioning of domestic arrangements. How much, she asks, can we bear to understand about our own actions? Calle compels us to attend to what we have decided, willfully, to forget – whether this is obsessing about strangers, ignoring our own mortality, mindlessly venerating political monuments or works of art, using a payphone, deciding what to eat on a given day or whom to marry, and on and on.
When Calle tells me that her overarching goal is ‘to decide’, and thereby control, her interactions, I understand that it is her aim to detach herself from a commonplace emotional life, one that often goes un-thought. Although her work diverges from the high conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s – in that it does not focus exclusively on the act of art-making or the artwork’s medium, its institutional context or related economies – it does comment reflexively on the origins of narrative in everyday life. The unconsidered self, in possession of a supposedly natural story, is lost in Calle’s carefully staged endeavours, but an art object is gained. For Calle, this object is usually a book.
While Calle has produced fine, limited editions – including La Fille du docteur (The Doctor’s Daughter, 1991), a box enclosing black and white photographs documenting her 1979 performance The Striptease together with facsimiles of congratulatory cards sent to her parents after her birth – most of her publications are more attainable. Offered in French by Actes Sud and in English by Thames & Hudson and Siglio Press, Calle’s artist books are mass-produced yet beautifully designed, printed and bound in hardcover, almost always with a petite trim size that suggests portability as well as intimacy, an uncanny hominess. There is, additionally, an air of the children’s story, travel guide, devotional text or novelty book about them, a jumble of genres and contexts that somehow coalesce into a uniquely Calleian style, as maniacally energetic as it is refined.
As Calle explained to Gagosian director Louise Neri in Interview in 2009, she has been accused of putting ‘open books on the walls’ with her exhibitions of images and texts, perversely privileging reading in settings normally associated with looking. She tells me that creating sensual experience is her primary goal as an artist. Although, as she also tells me, she often thinks about whether something will work ‘for the wall’, she seems less a devotee of galleries than of Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion that all the world is destined to end up in a book, which for Calle is a multivalent, carnal location. For her most recent English-language publication, The Hotel (2021), this has meant gilt edging, full-bleed photographic images with a painterly lushness and a witty, cloth-bound cover reproducing three vintage wallpaper patterns – amounting to a modern-day reliquary. You do not read The Hotel: you step into it, lie down, feel and smell the personal items of the unwitting guests Calle, posing as a maid in 1981, documented with her camera and daily writing.
With Calle, it is less a question of representation of a real world via false media, than of a symmetry between our experience and her creations that can feel unaccountable and unnerving, for she offers something more nuanced than objective truth. Hers is a painstakingly strategic literature that poses ceaselessly as what has already been written, as that which belongs to the agency and fantasies of others, as what was discarded and only accidentally found, in which ‘I’ is a mystery to be filled in by strangers. Near the end of our conversation, I gathered my courage and attempted a meagre joke. ‘You’re a very lucky person,’ I told Calle, and she laughed. I was ludicrously proud of myself, as if I were the first writer to successfully describe her.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 with the headline ‘The World in a Book’
Date: November 1, 2021
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, November, 2021.