Jan Estep, “Sophie Calle, M’as-tu Vue,” Rain Taxi, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall 2004, 30-31.
French artist Sophie Calle presents laconically written anecdotes juxtaposed with large-scale documentary photographs. In one photo the artist wears a fake pig snout and the adjacent block of text tells the story of a man who once told her she ate like a pig. In another the artist cups her bared breasts and recounts her tribulations as a flat-chested teen. In yet another the photo of a nude figure drawing, torn to bits and taped back together again, sits alongside the memory of the artist working as a nude model. Everyday for twelve days a man came to draw her and at the end of the session he would pull out a razor and compulsively cut up the image, leaving the shreds behind. On the thirteenth day she quit.
Part visual record, part literary memoir, Autobiographies only hints at the complex individual authoring the works. Calle shows us who she is. She tells us who she is. But despite the abundant, seemingly transparent disclosures, she evades our full comprehension. Calle resides somewhere amidst this saying and showing.
The difference between these two activities presents a paradox. Clearly we can be swept up in what someone says even if it contradicts what is right before our eyes. And we can assert all sorts of statements that are beyond simple showing: “God exists.” “Time heals.” “I love you.” The relationship between language and image is such that there is no singular correspondence between the two. While this wreaks havoc on our capacity for ascertaining truth, it also means two complementary things. No matter how declarative our statements, they can always be questioned. And no matter how much we talk, there’s always more to say. In other words, the world is always greater than what you or I have to say about it, and (to paraphrase Wittgenstein) the limits of our language are the limits of our world.
As the province of images, art traditionally sides with seeing. Conceptual practices notwithstanding, artists tend to show what they know in visual rather than linguistic form. In fact there is often a suspicion of language, a fear that the image will be reduced to what is said or written about it. For those not open to the interplay between image and text the power of language to articulate meaning can be annoying if not downright threatening. Language can close off the aesthetic experience, truncate it with a too-rational, too-reductive bluntness. We’ve all seen it done. The artist’s statement taken as gospel. The viewer at wit’s end without didactics. The critic who forever changes a work’s reception with a few key phrases. It is both the bane and the boon of visual artists, but in our society ultimately we give authority to those who speak: those who write news, law, history, those who articulate values and objectives, those who establish in word the rules of the game. If you don’t have access to public language, and no one takes up your cause, you’re apt to be dismissed or forgotten. This goes for artists as much as anyone else. Especially when images are difficult to talk about, artists who can speak well for themselves and their work have an advantage.
Artists such as Sophie Calle, for whom writing is a natural companion to creating images, go much farther. They introduce the idea that language and art making—or saying and showing—are not discrete, unrelated or antagonistic partners. Moving fluidly between image and text, narrative and photography, fact and fiction, her approach opens up a space between visuality and thought that defies their art-historical and cultural separation. Calle embraces the unbridgeable gaps between saying and showing, refusing to prioritize one over the other. In Calle’s world, neither images nor words are enough. Her work depends on tension between what we see, what we read, and what we understand.
Direct. Evidenciary. Ambiguous. Equivocal. Such incompatible adjectives apply as much to Calle’s writing as to her images; both are at once utterly straightforward and thoroughly inconclusive. Generally the work originates as a set of specific parameters that guide the artist’s actions, the performance of which are documented in ordinary-looking photographs paired with passages of descriptive text. Hard as she tries to appear objective both elements impress with what cannot be shown in just words or pictures. There’s always something lurking outside of what is presented, over and above the facts.
The recent catalogue of Calle’s work, Sophie Calle: M’as-tu vue—published by Prestel Verlag in conjunction with her 2003-2004 retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris—reveals recurring interests in intentionality, theatricality, (auto)biography, and the discrepancy between perception and understanding. The process of coming to know someone is taken up in a number of works that in their violation of a conventional respect for privacy verge on criminal behavior. For The Address Book (1983), the artist interviewed all the people listed in an address book she found lying on the street, printing them serially in a local newspaper. From these interviews she composed a psychological portrait of its owner. For Hotel (1981) the artist worked as a hotel chambermaid, spied on the occupants of the rooms she cleaned, and wrote similar assessments. Her investigations direct our attention to the way subjective impressions are formed in a manner that defies our best intentions to control how others see us: Be careful what you show because people are watching. They also make clear how quickly language confers judgment, and how strongly projection and expectation influence understanding.
Feigning intimacy from a distance, the artist knowingly had herself followed by a detective for The Shadow (1981). He photographed her movements and wrote detailed reports of her activities, while she included a running commentary about her relationship to the man watching her. Calle’s self-reflexivity contrasts sharply with that of the detective, the expert fact-finder who knows next to nothing about his subject.
Continuing to challenge this inner/outer divide, in Exquisite Pain (1984-2003) the artist daily monitored her emotional state after a failed relationship by asking others to describe for her their worse suffering. As she systematically compares her own story with her fellow sufferers’ (we are given both in writing) the intensity of her anguish eventually recedes. Calle is comforted by this exchange of language. Throughout her work there is a desire for what can be externalized in speech and recordable behavior to substantiate internal states of mind. In this regard, Calle has also commissioned fictionalized love letters from men she barely knows: make-believe words that make her feel loved.
The adequacy of language as a substitute for sight is also explored by Calle. In The Blind (1986) the artist asked people who had been blind since birth to describe their image of beauty, which she then interprets in photographic form. In Ghosts (1989-1991) the artist collected descriptions and small drawings from museum guards, curators, and regular visitors of artworks temporarily removed from their usual spot; the descriptions were put up in place of the missing artworks themselves. Similarly in Last Seen (1991) paintings stolen from a famous art collection are commemorated with gathered descriptions and photos of their now-vacant resting place. In The Detachment (1996) the artist asked people in East Berlin to describe various Communist memorials that had been torn down since reunification, their remnants still visible throughout the city. What is left behind in the collected texts is a mishmash of fact, frustration, and personal eccentricity.
In the 1990s Calle began an involved collaboration with the writer Paul Auster (author of New York Trilogy, Timbuktu, The Invention of Solitude, et al). Auster was originally working on a screenplay for a documentary about the artist, but when that project stalled he used his research in the novel Leviathan, creating an artist character named Marie who closely resembled Calle. He listed many of the real artist’s projects verbatim, but introduced two new fictional works attributed to Marie. Using the book as her guide, Calle took the attribution to heart: In The Chromatic Diet (1997) and Days Under the Sign of B, C & W (1998) the artist enacts Auster’s imagined additions to her oeuvre, thereby rendering them real. Calle also asked Auster if he would invent for her a fictive character that she could attempt to resemble. Instead he wrote a set of scripted actions titled “Personal Instructions for Sophie Calle to Improve Life in New York City (because she asked…).” These she also enacted, in Gotham Handbook (1994), further blurring the distinction between real-life and fiction.
The projects reveal just how tied to language the artist is: it is the way she communicates with others and they with her. A character is created; actions are scripted; information is exchanged; a life is written. The images naively testify to the facts of that existence: the “this has been” documentation at photography’s base. However, neither the images nor the words are able to contain experience. Despite the simple photos and ample explanatory text, there is a notable absence at their core. Many of the projects are overtly about such absence: the absence of sight, time, clarity, and loneliness, the absent child, the absent lover, the absent art. As much as the psychological content of the work might tempt you to believe otherwise, this is not the loss of depression, insecurity, or heartache; it is inescapable loss of an existential, metaphysical sort. In the end, it’s not that language does it better or worse than images; both are necessary and useful—but neither is sufficient. Life fills in the gaps between the two: the artist’s life, our life, and the life of the artwork.
copyright 2004 Jan Estep