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.
Important Art by Sophie Calle
L'Hôtel, Chambre 47 (The Hotel, Room 47)
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.
2 works on paper, photographs and ink - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
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.
Photographs and ink - Bronx Museum, New York
The Birthday Ceremony
Between the years of 1980 and 1993, Calle held an annual birthday dinner party, and made a rule (or conceptual constraint), that the number of friends and relatives invited should match the number of years of her age. A chosen guest nominated one additional, anonymous guest each year, representative of "the unknown of the artist's future." Gifts given to Calle at the parties were then displayed in medical-style cabinets (a reference to her father's profession) as tokens of fondness, which the artist called a "constant reminder of this affection." According to the Tate Britain, where The Birthday Ceremony was shown as part of Art Now 14 in 1998, the cabinets were "the most ambitious of a series of rituals Calle had invented to override an obsessive insecurity she experienced in early adulthood." On her fortieth birthday, Calle ceased the ritual and the project ended.
The Birthday Ceremony invites us to think about the personal, sometimes private rituals that we invent and carry out and that contribute towards our individual identities. The gifts are not ordered in any particular way, leading us to think about the meaning of hierarchical categorization. Other artists that invite us to think again about classification include Daniel Spoerri, Marcel Broodthaers, and Mark Dion.
15 Cabinets and various objects - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
In his novel Leviathan, American author Paul Auster based a character, Maria, on Sophie Calle. He was inspired by her work and when he sent her his manuscript to ask permission to fictionalize her, Calle says, "I never thought about saying no."
After reading the novel, Calle decided, in a characteristic mixing of reality and fiction, to respond by literally embodying the fictional Maria and to recreate parts of the character per the novel. Calle then photographed these recreations for her book Double Game, including Maria's "chromatic diet." In the book she wrote, "To be like Maria, during the week of December 8 to 14, 1997, I ate Orange on Monday, Red on Tuesday, White on Wednesday, and Green on Thursday. Since Paul Auster had given his character the other days off, I made Friday Yellow and Saturday Pink." The photograph in the book for Saturday shows a meal of ham, taramasalata, and strawberry ice cream with rosé wine from Provence.
In this "double game," through Maria we get to know Sophie. The book is another example of Calle using a starting point based on a rule. This is her best selling art book, and it links to Conceptual Writing, a contemporary movement in which texts, often appropriated texts, may be reduced, through a concept or idea to a set of procedures, a generative instruction, or a conceptual constraint. Artists that work in Conceptual Writing include Kenneth Goldsmith, Diana Hamilton, and Caroline Bergvall.
Ribbon bound book - Published by Violette Editions
Room With a View
On October 5, 2002, Calle spent the night in a room built at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Cuddling between white sheets, she invited strangers to visit and read a bedtime story to her. "Tell me a story, so I won't fall asleep," she implored. The maximum story length was five minutes, and, the guests were instructed to leave, and have the guard wake Calle, if their story put her to sleep. After the end of her sleepless, story-filled night, the artist would depart the site as a message flashing on each pillar of the tower let her know what time it was, reminding her a night had gone by in which she hadn't dreamt at all.
The piece was a perfect example of Calle's ability to force intimacy between strangers. Only this time, instead of being a covert observer to other's behaviors, she openly invited personal engagement within the universally resonant setting of "bed time." The piece also blurred the lines between artist and viewer, toppling notions that art had to be experienced from the outside in.
One framed text, one framed b/w photograph
Take Care of Yourself
A break up letter to the artist, received via email, was the starting point for Sophie Calle's installation Take Care of Yourself, originally created for the French Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale. Taking the letter's final words "take care of yourself" as her starting point, the artist asked 107 women, chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret the letter for her. Calle then presented these collected multimedia reactions as her installation. Echoing our emotional need to understand such a blow, the 107 responses to Calle's request included exhaustive examinations of the letter that analyzed every last word, phrase, nuance, and possible meaning in all manner of ways from psychological textual analysis to a parrot repeating those final totemic words "take care of yourself." The work included film, photography, and text as, Paula Cooper Gallery states, a "tour de force of feminine responses... from a clairvoyant's response to a scientific study, a children's fairytale to a Talmudic exegesis, ... from the realms of anthropology, criminology, philosophy, psychiatry, theater, opera, soap opera and beyond." Take Care of Yourself openly and exuberantly explored the private pain of breaking up and the crushing heartache of being dumped by email.
The sheer variety of responses, from the potentially illuminating to the absurd, all adhere to Calle's use of a conceptual constraint. In this instance, it involved the artist taking the letter's advice at its word - to take care of her self - via 107 different interpretations. The constraints, or rules, that Calle uses as starting points often allow for chance results, and as here, often make public the artist's emotional life. In this instance, Calle turns a humiliating rejection into a liberating celebration of feminine solidarity.
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.
With such a dramatic and eclectic family, it's no surprise that Calle's life and relationships would become the central subject of many of her works. The artist's childhood disregard for social and personal boundaries would evolve and become evermore evident in her art projects.
A work by Sophie Calle featured a photograph of the artist as a toddler and a typical autobiographical text, which read: "I was two. It happened on a beach - Deauville, I think. My mother had entrusted me to a group of children. I was the youngest and they had to get rid of me: that was their game. They huddled together, whispering, then burst out laughing and scattered when I tried to come near. And I ran after them, shouting: 'Wait for me! Wait for me!' I can still remember."
Early Training and Work
Instead of attending art school, Calle studied for a diploma under the postmodernist thinker Jean Baudrillard. She later claimed that he had faked her qualification in order to help her skip studying in lieu of travel - travel that would only be funded by her father as a reward for academic success. After she finished school, Calle spent time in China, Mexico, and the United States. In California, she became interested in photography, learning to use photographic equipment and associated rudimentary techniques. At the age of 26, she arrived back in her home city of Paris and decided to attend photography classes. Her attendance of the classes was short lived after the first lesson failed to thrill her.
Nevertheless, she was influenced by the work of Duane Michals, an American photographer who combined images and text, and whose work her father collected. This influence emerged as Calle began to formulate her own artistic practice with photography and installation, combining photos, texts, and videos to weave narratives of private experience. Brushing off the label of artist, Calle described her projects often as "private games", saying, "I did not think about becoming an artist when I began. I did not consider what I was doing as art." Much of her work carried, instead, a socio-anthropological vein, in which she would come up with an idea or question, formulate a set of rules or constraints for which she might go about exploring it, then set about on a road toward discovery. Oftentimes these "games" would spotlight and provoke ideas about intimacy, privacy, social engagement, interrelationship, absence, and presence.
Calle's first major work was entitled Les Dormeurs (The Sleepers) (1979). The project arose from a chance request by one of her friends who asked if she could sleep in Calle's bed. This inspired the artist to ask 29 people, both friends and strangers, to spend eight hours in her bed while she photographed them, asked them questions, and made notes. The Sleepers was first shown in 1980 at the Biennale des Jeunes and was composed of the photographs and textual descriptions written in a detached anthropological tone, a modus operandi that would become the basis of much of Calle's artistic practice.
Mature Period and Current Work
During the time she spent reacquainting herself with Paris upon returning from her travels, Calle's artistic practice developed. She began to construct instances and engagements that explored human vulnerability.
She began to spend time following strangers and recording their movements, even to the extreme of following one unsuspecting French man all the way from Paris to Venice, all the while building up a dossier of images and notes about his travels.
Calle also took on the role of a stripper in a club in the seedy Pigalle district of Paris, which resulted in the work La Striptease (The Striptease) (1979). The piece was comprised of a book of photographs of the adult Sophie stripping alongside cards her parents had received from friends when Sophie was born. The work was made against the wishes of Calle's father and her relationship with him continues to be both touching and distant. After her mother died, Calle took her jewels to the North Pole where she buried them in a ceremony with a friend who sang a verse of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" by Marilyn Monroe.
Calle has lived alone in the same Parisian suburb for almost 40 years, where she's continued to make confessional no-holds-barred work from her typical deadpan, detached perspective, involving the viewer in its disregard of hierarchy and convention. She collects taxidermy animals and Victorian photographs of babies. She has a lot of friends, no children, sees her boyfriend once or twice a week, and has already commissioned her own headstone.
In 2007, Calle represented France at the Venice Biennale with her piece Take care of yourself, in which she asked women to interpret a break-up letter she had received. The analytical dissection of her personal rejection was displayed in video form as women broke down the letter's meaning in their own words, creating a universally resonant depiction of heartbreak. In Calle's confessional, no human experience escapes excavation.
The Legacy of Sophie Calle
One of France's leading Conceptual artists, Calle's life and work redefines the role of the artist or author. Her influence can be seen in the work of later "first-person" artists, whose lives and art are also intertwined, including Chris Kraus, Tracey Emin, and Amalia Ulman. As journalist Mary Kaye Schilling notes: "Even Taylor Swift's boyfriend-dishing pop songs owe something to Calle. Consciously or not, her influence is everywhere."
Calle has also inspired artists and writers who use rules as a game or a trigger for ideas, inspiration, and unforeseen outcomes. Because of this, her work is sometimes linked to the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. The acclaimed novelist Paul Auster has thanked Calle "for having authorized him to mingle fact with fiction."
Calle's work also shares a literary and feminist connection with artists such as Adrian Piper and Carolee Schneemann. All of these artists raise questions about women's roles, and Calle's projects that at first appear to be, as cultural theorist Anna Watkins Fisher writes "all about you" slowly turn into being "all about me." They challenge patriarchal boundaries and are accessible to non-art audiences with their deadpan approach to love, loss, and romance.
Influences and Connections
- Duane Michals
- Conceptual Art
- Oulipo Literary Movement
- Tracey Emin
- Chris Kraus
- Amalia Ulman
Useful Resources on Sophie Calle
- Sophie Calle: A SurveyBy Deborah Imis (1989)
- Sophie Calle: Did you see me?: M'as Tu Vue? - Did You See Me?By Sophie Calle and Christine Macel, ed. Yve-Alain Bois (2003)
- True StoriesBy Sophie Calle (2017)
- Take Care of YourselfBy Sophie Calle (2007)
- Rachel, MoniqueBy Sophie Calle (2017)
- Double GameBy Sophie Calle & Paul Auster (1999)