Review by Paul Pescador
Sophie Calle is the first artist I truly understood.
Up until this point I didn’t really understand what art was or what the point of it was. Growing up in a Southern California suburb, culture was limited to whatever action film was playing at the multiplex. In school, “Art” was a slacker class, an excuse to sit around and doodle in your notebook.
I am embarrassed by this now, years later as I sit here with scissors and stacks of brightly colored collages. Sophie Calle changed all this, changed me. She was performance art, video, photography. This was my sophomore year of college. I was taking a photography class as an elective. I sat down those first weeks and the professor, Julia Paull, was trying to explain conceptual art to mostly non-art majors. She showed us a book of Sophie Calle’s work and walked us through her images and read out loud her writing. I no longer remember which projects we saw, it might have been The Gotham Handbook (1994) where Calle gave out free sandwiches, The Shadow (1981) where she hired a detective to follow her around for a day, or The Sleepers (1979) in which she asked strangers to sleep in bed with her and photographed them sleeping. What stuck with me, nineteen-year-old Paul Pescador, was how these simple stories conveyed narratives of personal experience and relationships. Art was now this, and not that.
Though Calle was formative, I hadn’t thought much of her in years. Until a few months ago I was reading Leviathan (1992), a Paul Auster novel. In the book, a minor character named Maria is based upon Calle. I wasn’t a fan of Maria, she seemed too opaque and emotionally sensitive, and she wasn’t the Calle I always imagined. After the novel, I looked back to Calle. I spent the past month reading passages of Sophie Calle: Did You See Me?. It is a thick hardcover tome roughly 450 pages. It looks like a large novel. Broken up in chapters based upon specific themes in the work, each is separated by sheets of light pink paper and contains a collection of Calle’s writing and photographs from individual projects, images from her archive, and as well as interviews. The book functions as more of a survey than a clear compendium of individual works, making it difficult to obtain a full grasp any particular piece. Great small details do arise, moments that are intimate, charming, personal.
Re-looking at Calle’s practice I think about the small actions and interventions, the manner in which she deals with different social dynamics from failed romances to anonymous strangers. There is a push-and-pull of control, laying out rules and then just letting it happen. The piece Suite Venitienne (1980) began by Calle following random people on the street, only to meet one of them at a dinner party that evening. She overheard that this gentlemen would be spending the weekend in Venice and she decided to followed him without his knowing and recorded this through text and photography.
Right after I finished undergrad, I was also producing a lot of my own small interventions for the camera. Working a full time job on the other side of town, I didn’t have time for a studio practice. I would go everywhere with my camera and perform small, simple rituals over and over for the period of a few months. Every time I would go into a public restroom, I would unroll the toilet paper, record the conversation I heard onto to the paper, and then re-roll it. Every time I was in a restaurant, I would take a salt shaker and swap it for a different shaker from another restaurant. Every time I drove by a cemetery, I would steal flowers from someone’s grave and then give them to someone else. While Calle’s interventions were so much about understanding personal relationships, for me, my performances were so much about understanding those moments in the day that I was alone with just my camera.
As my work has changed throughout the years, so has my interest in Calle. This past month with her book, I struggled to relate like I had years ago. I feel too separated from it and I’m mad at myself for not being able to reconnect. It’s like seeing a friend that the first time in years and trying to catch up, but failing.
As I finished reading the book, I sifted through the pages and I found a short note on the inside front page. It’s handwritten in pencil and from my boyfriend. It reads: “Pauli-I want to see/understand every piece of art you make in this lifetime. I love you. Happy Birthday. Your Boyfriend Daniel.” I had forgotten that Daniel had given me this book the first year we were together. I choked up for a moment while reading it. I was reminded of my relationship then, two artists, twenty-three years old, trying to learn how to deal with one another. Through this note, I’m able to think about her work through the idea of nostalgia and sentimentality and how one’s personal relationship to artwork has the ability to shift and change over time.
Calle’s work for me has been about coming to terms with the personal experience of relationships, emotions and memory. This struggle to connect to her work has allowed me to find a new way to appreciate it, even if that appreciation is tied to my own memories. Sophie Calle: Did You See Me? begins with an essay by Christine Macel who speaks about Calle’s work through the lense of Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author (1967), a seminal essay which highlights the importance of the role of the reader to a text and how the work becomes subjective based upon an individual’s reading. For me, Calle’s work is subjective; at 19, the work was about relationship to cinema, at 23, it was about public performance and intervention, and now, at 29, it has been a way to trace the trajectory of my life’s work.
Christine Macel , Yve-Alain Bois, Olivier Rolin, Sophie Calle: Did You See Me? (Prestel, 2004)
Images: Cover and interior of Sophie Calle: Did You See Me?