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Sophie Calle - Biography and Legacy

French Conceptual artist

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, Performance Art

Born: October 9, 1953 - Paris, France

Sophie Calle Timeline

"I'm not obsessive, 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."

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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.

Most Important Art

Sophie Calle Famous Art

L'Hôtel, Chambre 47 (The Hotel, Room 47) (1981)

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.
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Content compiled and written by Carol Sommer

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Carol Sommer
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 16 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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