Progression of Art
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 - Tate, London
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 - Various Collections including Tate Britain and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
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.