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Interview with Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle is France’s most celebrated conceptual artist. Her highly autobiographical, multi-disciplinary work combines the confessional and the cerebral, and is typified by the imposition of often bizarre rules and schemes upon her everyday existence. Her work – realised in photography and film, writing, performances and installations – is simultaneously emotionally wrought and clinically detached, inducing in its audience a furtive sense of voyeurism and intrusion.

 

Calle has claimed that she did not initially conceive of her practice as art, and that she only came to present herself as an artist in her mid-twenties to ‘seduce’ her father, a noted collector. For ‘The Sleepers’ (1979) she invited people to sleep in her bed for eight hours while she observed them, later combining the photographs with her own writing and snippets from interviews with the subjects. In the same year she met a man at a party and determined to follow him to Venice. Having phoned scores of hotels to find out where ‘Henri B.’ was staying, she persuaded the woman who lived across from his room to allow her to covertly photograph his comings and goings, all the while disguised in a blonde wig and make up. Her notes on this ‘Suite Vénitienne’ were later published alongside an essay entitled ‘Please follow me’ (1988) by her friend Jean Baudrillard. He rejects the notion that Calle was compelled by the desire to foster any kind of connection with her subject, or to engineer a satisfying resolution to a chance encounter: ‘Nothing was to happen, not one event that might establish any contact or relationship between them. This is the price of seduction. The secret must not be broken, at the risk of the story’s falling into banality.’

 

The artist’s enigmatic commingling of fact and fiction, her introduction of narrative structure into the chaos of lived experience, has long fascinating writers and theorists. Paul Auster wrote her into his 1992 novel Leviathan as the character Maris, whose ‘work was too nutty, too idiosyncratic, too personal to be thought of as belonging to any particular medium or discipline… {Her} activity didn’t stem from a desire to make art so much as from a need to indulge her obsessions, to live her life precisely as she wanted to live it.’ Delighted by the homage, Calle would create a series of artworks authored by the fictional character, and later collaborated with Auster on a book, Double Game.

 

Chris Kraus has written that Calle’s ‘projects are all conceived within a game plan – games that reference randomness and chance. But unlike certain late modernists who devised chance events, like the writers of the Oulipo Group, or William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Calle has no particular belief that ‘chance’ can break the code of randomness and reveal a hidden meaning. Despite its enigmatic surface, Calle’s work is vastly less romantic. She reveals the empty space of chance to be just what it is, just empty.’

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Could you tell us about your meeting with ‘the man with no name’, with whom you had a discussion about the organisation of your funeral? The video of that conversation {which can be viewed online} reminds me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Agonia (1969), in which an old man who is close to death asks a theatre group to call death to his bedside.

A

SOPHIE CALLE

— The man with no name made a wax mannequin of himself and buried it in 2011. He used to have an identity {as the Danish artist Claus Beck-Nielsen} but decided that he didn’t want one anymore. He is well and truly alive. I saw him again recently, he was dressed as a woman, although I think he changes day by day, because when he gave me a rendezvous, he said, ‘he or she will come.’

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You met him because you both had this idea of organising your own funeral. In fact you’d already met Vito Acconci after several people told you that what you were doing when you were following people for ‘Suite Vénitienne’resembled what Acconci did in ‘Following Piece’(1969), when he followed a random passer-by around the streets of New York until they entered a private space.

A

SOPHIE CALLE

— Thanks to Vito Acconci I’m no longer scared of doing the same thing as anyone else. In any case, everyone has the same ideas.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— René Char said, ‘Each act is virgin, even the repeated ones.’

A

SOPHIE CALLE

— Vito Acconci told me that my project had nothing to do with his, that we weren’t following people for the same reasons. The purpose of our projects was different, the motives too. Following people is something detectives do on a daily basis. Jealous lovers do it too. Following is an act that belongs to the entire world. When someone tells me that someone else has already done what I’m doing it doesn’t bother me, because I have my own creative vocabulary, my own means of expression.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Why did you want to meet the man with no name if you weren’t worried about that?

A

SOPHIE CALLE

— Because I’m a curious person. I thought that rather than taking an idea away from me, he might be able to gift me one. He interested me as a character. How he lived, how he was. ‘The man with no name’, that was interesting enough.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Did he make you want to put on your own funeral or was that someone you’d already thought about?
A

SOPHIE CALLE

— It was an idea I’d abandoned, that was in a drawer somewhere, and as more and more ideas were coming to me, I would add them to that drawer. And I guess the day that a project can come to fruition, I take everything out of its drawer and use it. I’ve always worked like that, putting projects to one side and returning to them later on.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Timothée Chaillou is an independent art critic and curator. He is a member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics), of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art), of CEA (Commissaires d'Exposition Associés) and of Société Française d'Esthétique. He is the editor in chief of Annual Magazine No 5.