Sophie Calle is one of my creative heroes, an artist of tremendous intelligence, charm, wit and drive. Calle not only chooses the road less traveled, she actually invents the road first, and then heads out on it. Intuition provides traffic signals and directions, and she carries her ideas until they reach their natural end.
An example; from a project in Paris in 1983. Libération, the Paris newspaper, offered her space for a series during the summer months. She proposed to write a daily story based on the life of a man she had never met, but whom she invented by talking to people who knew him.
The backstory: Calle had found an address book, copied it and returned it to its owner anonymously. Then she started interviewing the owner’s contacts, and concocted an interpretation of his life as seen through their eyes (his gardener, lawyer, friends, etc.). She referred to her character only as Pierre D. Keeping his identity secret, she didn’t contact him about the project. Early on she learned he was out of the country on an extended trip. Here was her green light, she said, and out she set on her road.
Pretty bold, right? A little crazy maybe. Questionable ethics you might say. In a talk at the Art Institute recently, Calle described how she navigated these attitudes and more. Unfortunately, Pierre D. eventually sued her.
As she said: “He was very angry. And I did feel bad about it, yes. I was disappointed. All his friends were willing to speak to me about this man. They were all sure that he would love the project.”
In the process of interviewing his contacts, Calle said she felt herself falling in love with her subject. She was interested in his ideas, she liked his friends, they laughed at the same things, everything he liked she also liked. She started to believe that when he came back to Paris he would fall into her arms in love. That’s not how it worked out, she said – when someone you love sues you, it’s pretty upsetting.
“… I didn’t see it coming. So I felt very guilty, although my commitment to a project is stronger than my sense of guilt.”
While the series unfolded, it was popular among Libération readers. But when Pierre D. returned, he was outraged. He published a denunciation in Libération, accusing the paper of violating his privacy. He revealed his identity and attacked Calle. He insisted that Libération publish nude photographs of her as retaliation, an invasion of her privacy. Calle told the Art Institute audience that this retaliation was a bit ridiculous to her. She was working as an exotic dancer in Paris at the time, in another of her exploratory projects.
Calle said she was intrigued by Pierre D.’s choice to expose his identity, and also by the response of her readers. People who’d previously been fans of the series turned against it, expressing they felt betrayed. Those who’d disliked it became fans. Judgements were passed about her ethics and integrity.
Prior to introducing this work, Calle had described it as the most difficult work she would share that evening. That’s a profound statement coming from a woman whose works include “Take Care of Yourself”, an extended project in which 107 women analyze, from a variety of professional perspectives, a callous email sent to Calle by a former lover breaking off their relationship, and “Rachel-Monique” an intimate experience centering on her mother’s death that includes a film of her mother’s last moment.
But at the end of the Libération piece, Calle said, she was disturbed to realize she had made enemies among people she didn’t even know.
As a result of this upsetting situation, Calle developed a new project. She interviewed people who had been born blind, asking them to describe their vision of beauty. Then, she set out to make a photograph of the beauty they described.
“I met people who were born blind. Who had never seen. I asked them what their image of beauty was.”
The first person she spoke with described beauty as an unending scene – a vision without limit. She made a photograph of the horizon at the sea. Again, this encounter was a signal to her; a message to follow these visions indefinitely.
“The most beautiful thing I ever saw is the sea, the sea going out so far you loose sight of it.”
Calle talked with 23 people for the project. She made a portrait of each person. Exhibited, the photographs rest on shelves of varying heights and length. Each one framed, they perch, leaning against the wall. One shelf carries the portrait. An adjacent shelf holds the visions; sometimes one, sometimes multiple images in a range of sizes. In the final conversation for the project, Calle met a man who told her he didn’t have a vision of beauty. Here, his portrait rests on its shelf. Next to it, an empty shelf. The red light; a signal to Calle that the piece was complete.
Sophie Calle’s works are challenging. They are audacious and funny. Even as they push against limits of propriety and are sometimes intrusive, they are also trusting; genuinely curious, and respectful. Her audacity is an inspiration. In it there is humor, the willingness to take personal risk, and gentle irreverence for social norms.
The trust part is kind of magical. There’s an element of fluxus in it; in the way she sets up situations, a game that starts with an idea, establishes internal rules, and then follows them.
“I’m not obsessive,” she says, “but I am rigorous. If I have decided that there is this rule or that rule then I am very committed. I don’t get bored. I think I have an ability because I believe in the construction of the idea. If it’s a good idea then it’s exciting.”
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If you enjoyed this, check this out: “Les Blank’s films of people and place”