Lucy Ives in Frieze: The “book . . for Calle is a multivalent, carnal location”

News Section, Reviews

October 31st, 2021

(Review) The Hotel by Sophie Calle


Lucy Ives Gives Sophie Calle a Call


Originally published in the November issue (link to full original post)


. . . Calle told curator and editor Bice Curiger for ICA London’s ‘Talking Art’ series in 1993, that there is always a ‘lie’ in each of her works: ‘It is what I would have liked to find and didn’t.’

Far from stumbling upon a space of writing in which the factual and the imaginary lose their distinctness, Calle ended up here very much by desire and design. Critics often gesture towards the similarities with surrealist and situationist relationships to urban space and questions of chance when attempting to unpack Calle’s motivations and techniques. But, whereas doctrinaire surrealism compelled the viewer or reader to confront the hypocritical prudery of modern culture, and situationism sought to address the presence of authoritarian narratives in the built environment, Calle’s claim is not really on or about larger systems, except in that they happen to figure in her strategies as raw material. Calle aims at a more subtle human mechanism, one that goes by various names: attachment, repetition, obligation. I’d add another term you see less frequently in the writing on Calle: inheritance. Even as her project takes place in public, it is often about outing the functioning of domestic arrangements. How much, she asks, can we bear to understand about our own actions? Calle compels us to attend to what we have decided, wilfully, to forget – whether this is obsessing about strangers, ignoring our own mortality, mindlessly venerating political monuments or works of art, using a payphone, deciding what to eat on a given day or whom to marry, and on and on.

When Calle tells me that her overarching goal is ‘to decide’, and thereby control, her interactions, I understand that it is her aim to detach herself from a commonplace emotional life, one that often goes un-thought. Although her work diverges from the high conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s – in that it does not focus exclusively on the act of art-making or the artwork’s medium, its institutional context or related economies – it does comment reflexively on the origins of narrative in everyday life. The unconsidered self, in possession of a supposedly natural story, is lost in Calle’s carefully staged endeavours, but an art object is gained. For Calle, this object is usually a book.

While Calle has produced fine, limited editions – including La Fille du docteur (The Doctor’s Daughter, 1991), a box enclosing black and white photographs documenting her 1979 performance The Striptease together with facsimiles of congratulatory cards sent to her parents after her birth – most of her publications are more attainable. Offered in French by Actes Sud and in English by Thames & Hudson and Siglio Press, Calle’s artist books are mass-produced yet beautifully designed, printed and bound in hardcover, almost always with a petite trim size that suggests portability as well as intimacy, an uncanny hominess. There is, additionally, an air of the children’s story, travel guide, devotional text or novelty book about them, a jumble of genres and contexts that somehow coalesce into a uniquely Calleian style, as maniacally energetic as it is refined.

As Calle explained to Gagosian director Louise Neri in Interview in 2009, she has been accused of putting ‘open books on the walls’ with her exhibitions of images and texts, perversely privileging reading in settings normally associated with looking. She tells me that creating sensual experience is her primary goal as an artist. Although, as she also tells me, she often thinks about whether something will work ‘for the wall’, she seems less a devotee of galleries than of Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion that all the world is destined to end up in a book, which for Calle is a multivalent, carnal location. For her most recent English-language publication, The Hotel (2021), this has meant gilt edging, full-bleed photographic images with a painterly lushness and a witty, cloth-bound cover reproducing three vintage wallpaper patterns – amounting to a modern-day reliquary. You do not read The Hotel: you step into it, lie down, feel and smell the personal items of the unwitting guests Calle, posing as a maid in 1981, documented with her camera and daily writing.

With Calle, it is less a question of representation of a real world via false media, than of a symmetry between our experience and her creations that can feel unaccountable and unnerving, for she offers something more nuanced than objective truth. Hers is a painstakingly strategic literature that poses ceaselessly as what has already been written, as that which belongs to the agency and fantasies of others, as what was discarded and only accidentally found, in which ‘I’ is a mystery to be filled in by strangers . . . .

Read the entire piece here.