“The Address Book is never about one thing.”

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February 26th, 2013


(Review) The Address Book

Los Angeles Review of Books

The Savage Detective: On Sophie Calle’s “The Address Book”


Originally published October 25, 2012


In a 2008 conversation between artists Sophie Calle and Jill Magid, Calle noted that L’Homme au carnet (aka The Address Book, 1983) was her only work to date where she “went too far.” “I think that for the guy it was very cruel,” she observed. “But if it had to be redone, I would redo it because the excitement is stronger than the guilt.”

A tortuous work, indeed—the piece unleashed some major waves for Calle to ride out. In June 1983, she found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs in Paris and decided to photocopy its contents before anonymously sending it back to its owner, whose name and address were listed in its endpapers. Next, she devised a “game,” an essential motif of all her works, which often involves Calle placing herself in challenging emotional and psychological situations and enlisting the participation of others—such as submitting their own scattered memories and/or personal objects at her inquisitive and often whimsical requests. In this case, she contacted the people listed in the address book, one by one, and interviewed them about its owner, “Pierre D.,” who was traveling for work at the time. Calle’s short, deadpan texts about each interaction and an accompanying black-and-white photograph were published daily—from August 2 to September 4, 1983—by the then-thriving Parisian newspaper Libération. The imaginary portrait produced by the feuilleton series blasted not only Calle into the realm of celebrity stardom, but also its absent subject, who eventually read these pronouncements, much to his dismay. He threatened to sue, and Calle consented not to republish the work until after his death. But he didn’t stop there.

The art historian Yve-Alain Bois, one of Calle’s foremost critics and champions, has called The Address Book the most “famous” and “spectacular” of all her works. But it’s also been her most underrepresented, and has only recently been published in English with the arrival of this slim volume from Siglio press. (In 2009, L.A.’s Gemini G.E.L. published a limited edition of 45 lithographs based on the original tabloid pages from the newspaper.) The tension produced from seeing this old work as new spawns a few difficult questions: What does it mean for a such a famous artist to have hit such a “low” when her entire oeuvre is based, in so many ways, on always overdoing it, whether through exhibitionism or surveillance or some other risky ploy? Calle is renowned for pushing extremes; why did The Address Book actually hit one for her?

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