THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Intrusive, Invasive, Inquisitive Calle
November 1, 2015
In the early 1980s, the artist Sophie Calle found an address book on a Paris street, photocopied its pages, returned it to its owner, and then interviewed the people listed within to find out more about him. Calle’s inquiries were published in the French daily Liberation. Over the course of a month, readers learned about the owner, “Pierre D”: his work at a film magazine, his failures to put himself forward professionally, when and why his hair turned white.
Calle, who at 62 is one of France’s most celebrated and well-known artists, has spent her career following others. She is said to be intrusive or invasive in her work, which usually consists of fabricated encounters between the artist and others. She has photographed people sleeping in her bed, snooped around hotel rooms to document their occupants, hired strangers to interpret the letters of past lovers. (Calle’s current boyfriend, according to the Guardian, has asked that she keep him out of her work. “I agreed,” she told the newspaper, “but I may change my mind.”) In her most recent exhibition, Rachel, Monique, she projected a film recording her mother’s last moments, while, on speakers, voices read out selections from the dead woman’s diary.
The intimacy she creates, however, is not always revealing. Calle is not a documentarian; her work is often deliberately opaque. Faces are obscured. Names are changed. Information is distorted. In The Address Book, Calle crops and blurs images. Her sources recant and recoil from her questioning. Calle herself wavers about her project. “Suddenly, I am afraid of what I am doing.” What’s most telling is often what is absent. It was the address book’s owner who divulged his own identity, when he threatened to sue Calle and asked Liberation to publish a nude picture of her in retaliation. In her pursuit of strangers, Calle presents a kind of artistic Zeno’s paradox: the closer you get to someone else, the more you realize the distance separating you.
Siglio Press, a small publishing house in Los Angeles, has been rereleasing Calle’s artist books. Most recently, they’ve redesigned Suite Vénitienne, an early project of Calle’s. In 1980, the artist tried to follow and photograph a man on the street but quickly lost sight of him. That night, she ran into him at a party. The man told Calle he was going to Venice. She decided to pursue him there.