To the casual observer, Sophie Calle’s artwork might seem on the surface, unassuming, even uninteresting; those documentary style photographs and their clinical, matter-of-fact descriptions are devoid of ‘wow-ness’ or visual stimulation demanded by most present-day casual art viewers, and belie the philosophical meaning and social commentaries contained within. This paradoxical nature is present in all her projects and indeed most of her life; what seems unassuming, is in fact meaningful, what seems blind is in fact quite visionary. The essence is in the language and syntax.
With a deep rooted resistance to conformity, she did what most would consider absurd, unthinkable and definitely ‘foolish’; she opened up her own private bedroom for strangers to come and sleep in, The Sleepers / Les Dormeurs (1979) , and started following and photographing people on the street, Suite Venitienne (1980).
To study this pursuer/pursued, public/private concept further and to reverse the roles, in The Shadow (1981) she got her mother to hire a private detective to follow her around Paris for a day, covertly taking pictures and noting any events that take place.
These projects are similar in concept; borne of morbid curiosity bordering on voyeurism, with the added benefit of not having to decide where to go and what to do, the pictures and text would have a forensic detachment to them, producing a flirtation between subject and object, public and private life, intimacy and distance, pushing the boundaries of what art could be.
In the 1990s Calle had a ‘working’ relationship (which, as always is more like a gaming partner) with American novelist Paul Auster, who in his 1992 novel Leviathan, depicted a female artist character ‘Maria’ mimicking Calle’s life from the 1970s and 80s. After the novel was published, Calle decided to lived out Maria’s life further, a ‘Double Game’ as she called it, since Auster had invented certain characteristics to Maria’s life (like strictly eating food of a particular color on a certain day of the week) that Calle did not do. As a student of Jean Baudrillard in her youth, we see his impact on Calle’s philosophical thinking; as she filled in the parts that Auster had left out, creating a sort of performance art where she would play the fictional Maria in real life, blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
Other projects such as asking blind people what they thought was beautiful, The Blind/Les Aveugles (1986) and taking poor people, who have never seen the sea but who live in a city surrounded by it, to see it for the first time in their life Voir La Mer (2011), have a sentimental quality and yet are detached, calling into question the paradoxical nature of blindness and vision, proximity and distance.
Calle’s art, as with her life, is a game in which she takes the traditionally held view in a given situation and the binary opposites generated by it, like fiction/reality or absurdity/wisdom and subverts it, not to dismantle these structures of thought, but to produce a post-structuralist play of uncertainty and ambiguity. Ultimately, we sense that the life of these documented subjects reflect something from that of her own.