Suite Vénitienne: “Part private detective, part femme fatale, part psychopath”

News Section, Reviews

May 1st, 2015

 

(Review) Suite Vénitienne by Sophie Calle

HARPER’S

CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD

Originally published May 2015

 

Not all encounter narratives take place at the barrel of a gun; some require only a telephoto lens. In the winder of 1979-80, the French artist Sophie Calle began tracking strangers through the streets of Paris—”for the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me.” She took their photographs. One night, at an art opening, she was introduced to Henri B., a man whom, coincidentally, she had followed earlier that day. When he mentioned that he was leaving soon for Venice, Calle decided that she would go, too. She packed a set of disguises, including a blonde wig, a veil, and a scarf, along with mirrored camera attachment called a Squintar, which allowed her to point her camera away from the subject she was photographing. She departed on a night train that left the Gare de Lyon from Platform H.

Serendipity gets Calle started, but stamina makes art. She rings up 125 hotels until a voice at the Casa de Stephani, a hundred meters from her pensione, tells her the M. Henri B. is out for the day. Part private detective, part femme fatale, part psychopath, Calle spends days stalking her subject and his wife up the calli and through the campi of the city; when they board a vaporetto, she boards the vaporetto; when he crouches down to take a photograph, so does she, several seconds behind. She grows reckless, and on day, when Henri is alone, she follows too close. “Your eyes,” he says to her. “I recognize your eyes; that’s what you should have hidden.” Henri takes a picture of her. But when they part she lifts her camera to capture him dead-on, he blocks his face with his hand. “That’s against the rules,” he decides, cheerfully claiming the power due his position—no longer the hunted, but an able co-conspirator.

Three years later, in 1983, Calle published the record of her twelve days in Venice. Suite Vénitienne, which is being reissued this month, is a handsome deep-blue hardcover, quite slim, in which brief, diaristic entries are interspersed with grainy black-and-white photographs and orang-and-pink maps. Calle, who had already arranged for a private detective to follow her for another project, The Detective, would go on to make other artworks about strangers. For The Address Book, she met people listed in a stranger’s address book; for The Hotel, she took a job as a maid and documented the rooms she cleaned. To make Take Care of Yourself, she asked 107 women to analyze the last email Calle’s lover had sent her. Calle’s work is a record of intimate events from her life, but the meaning of those events is stylized—aestheticized and detached.

Suite Vénitienne is a simple and haunting document, a record of madness and opportunism and unmotivated obsession. Henri B. could be any man. He is any man. Calle did not follow him to know him, or because she loved him. She acted like a lover in order to manufacture pure desire: desire not of an object but of desiring itself, which she pursued from dream into life.

Read the original in Harper’s Magazine