“For ‘The Hotel,’ I spent one year to find the hotel, I spent three months going through the text and writing it, I spent three months going through the photographs, and I spent one day deciding it would be this size and this frame . . . it’s the last thought in the process.”
French conceptual artist Sophie Calle redefines through personal investigation the terms and parameters of subject and object, public and private. In her projects, Calle immerses herself in examinations of voyeurism and identity. Often playing roles or adopting guises, she recasts her own identity to reconstruct or document strangers' lives, examining the relationship between the artist and the objects of her investigations.
'The worse the break-up, the better the art'
Amelia Gentleman talks to Sophie Calle, France's most famous conceptual artist, about the upsides of misery, the pull of the bizarre and the joy of being in a Paul Auster novel
Monday December 13, 2004
Misery guts... Sophie Calle, in front of a retrospective exhibition of her work. Photo: AFP/Getty
Sophie Calle views the suffering that comes with the end of a relationship with uncontained glee. From a creative point of view, the worse the break-up, the better the art: even as she is experiencing pain, the artist in her is starting to calculate how best she can exploit it.
Her new book, Exquisite Pain, is the product of a period of intense grief she experienced 20 years ago - so bad that she packed up everything associated with the relationship and its end, and left it untouched in a box until she felt strong enough to deal with it.
The book, composed of photographs, reproduced love letters, air tickets and passages from remembered conversations, takes the reader through the 92 days leading up to her abandonment, and the three months of recovery that followed. Calle had won a young artist's travel grant in 1984 and chose to take a train from Paris to Japan, leaving her boyfriend behind. They made complicated arrangements to meet in India at the end of the trip, but he called her in a hotel room in Delhi to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else.
Her method of getting over the shock consists of recounting her misery to everyone she meets - 99 times, with gradually diminishing emotion - and asking them to describe the worst moment of their lives in return. She taped every word of these gloomy, shared outpourings with friends and strangers, collecting 99 stories of powerful grief - the woman who is told she will give birth to a stillborn child, the boy who hears his father has died. For the Paris exhibition on which the book is based, she had the texts embroidered on to large wall hangings, which were placed next to her photographs and her assorted bits of break-up memorabilia (images of the clothes she was wearing on that day, the red telephone he called her on to say she was no longer the one).
Calle is France's most famous conceptual artist, who has been teasing her admirers with stylised portraits of her own life and images of the lives of strangers for the past 25 years. Her work had been greeted by French critics with irritation and enthusiasm in equal measure, until last year when she became a member of the nation's art establishment with a large retrospective at the Pompidou Centre.
She would be horrified at any suggestion that there is a self-help element to her work, and yet the way the narrative becomes less hysterical and more detached as the weeks pass is a soothing demonstration of how misery fades.
The stories of other people's distress are captivating - beautifully and movingly written - and they save the project from being merely contrived and pretentious, or an exercise in self-indulgence.
"Anybody who stopped to ask me why I was crying, I would tell them," she says. "My friends were all asking about the exotic trip that I had been on, but all I wanted to talk about was the end of my relationship. Sometimes I would be crying alone in a bar and someone would ask me what was wrong, and I'd explain to them, and I'd get talking.
"At the time, I took on this project more for therapeutic than for artistic reasons. I can't remember whether I was planning to use it all later on as material - I think I must have been because I conducted the process seriously and with rigour. I knew the project would stop when I got bored with talking about my pain or when I became disgusted and ashamed of the way that my banal love affair was nothing compared to the stories of greater unhappiness they were telling me."
With the benefit of 20 years' hindsight, Calle now dismisses the break-up itself as "banal". "It seemed at the time that it was the worst moment of my life - now it seems ridiculous," she says. "Maybe, as my friends point out, I was not suffering that much because I was still able to take a picture of the room - with the telephone and the bed - where it happened."
After three months, she was so sick of the sound of her own voice and the tedious details of her story that the incident was packed away and left to gestate. "I look back on it now and I realise that I didn't suffer that much. In a way I feel I was really lucky, when you see how some people carry their sorrow. In the end it was an excellent deal: three months of mourning, one exhibition and one book ..." she says, with only a trace of irony; Calle has an openly cynical approach to her own emotions.
In her studio, housed in a converted steel factory in the south of Paris, Calle has many more grey plastic boxes stacked up against the wall, and each is full of material for a future project. She is a hoarder, and has decorated her workspace with a menagerie of stuffed animals - flamingoes frozen with their wings expanded, dusty owls, monkeys climbing by the windows, snakes, bison, and a huge tiger given to her recently by a taxidermist friend who stuffed it shortly after its death in a French circus; another friend gave her the necklace of huge glass baubles which hangs around its neck. There is a plastic roasted chicken resting on piles of books on the table and a collage of gravestones on the wall outside the kitchen window. But mostly what she hoards are extracts from her life or snatches of other people's existences.
Her most famous works consist of re-creating moments from other lives. She used to follow people around Paris, secretly taking photographs of them. Once, she followed a man to Venice, found out which hotel he was staying at and tracked him, disguised in a blonde wig, for the two-week duration of his trip, taking photographs and notes. Later she got a job as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel and took pictures of the guests' messy rooms, examining the contents of their suitcases. Calle's experiences working in Pigalle strip bars also became part of her work - she says she accepted a job as a stripper to test her own feminist principles, and she collected pictures for a series called Striptease.
Another time, she got hold of a lost address book and called everyone inside, asking them to describe the book's owner and then published their answers every day for a month in the leftwing newspaper Libération - to the horror of her victim, who tried to get what he hoped would be revenge by persuading the paper to publish a nude picture of her. She was simply delighted by his response.
Calle's notoriety was such that in 1992 Paul Auster, who had read about her projects, "stole" her character and incorporated it wholesale into his novel Leviathan. Auster's Maris "was an artist but the work she did had nothing to do with creating objects commonly defined as art. Some people called her a photographer, others referred to her as a conceptualist, still others considered her a writer, but ... in the end I don't think she could be pigeonholed in any way. Her work was too nutty for that, too idiosyncratic, too personal to be thought of as belonging to any particular medium or discipline ... [Her] activity didn't stem from a desire to make art so much as from a need to indulge her obsessions, to live her life precisely as she wanted to live it."
Calle was thrilled by his decision to appropriate her for his book, and she in turn appropriated some of the extra details Auster had invented for Maris and incorporated them into her own life; the collaboration became another of Calle's projects.
More recently, the mysterious disappearance of a museum guard, who was last seen running barefoot away from her burning Paris apartment, became the subject of another project (A Woman Vanishes, 2003). After reading in Le Monde that the missing woman, Benedicte Vincens, was a fan of her work, Calle got permission from her mother to take photographs of the charred remains of the burnt-out flat, which she exhibited alongside her text recounting the strange story. Vincens has never reappeared and her body has not been found, but the exhibit received enthusiastic reviews.
Two years ago, Calle lay all night in a bed she had taken to the top of the Eiffel Tower (open for a night-time cultural festival) and invited passers-by to tell her stories to keep her awake. Beds appear frequently in Calle's work, prompting easy comparisons with Tracey Emin, but Calle, at 51, is a generation older than Emin, and points out that she has been doing this for much longer. Aside from their willingness to exploit their own emotions in their art, the two have little in common.
The daughter of a Parisian art-collecting doctor and a literary journalist, Calle never went to art school and only began working as an artist to counter growing feelings of boredom and aimlessness in her mid-20s. The medium was selected, she admits, to impress her father, who was keen on conceptual art. "I did this to seduce my father. He was seduced," she says. Her father remains immensely supportive of her work.
Calle admits that she is given to introspection when unhappy. Grief is inevitably a better subject than joy, she argues. "When I'm happy I don't photograph the moment to share with people on the wall of a museum. It doesn't translate so well. Do people like hearing someone's story about how happy they are? Not usually," she says. "I was happy with someone for seven years recently and all my friends were very worried about what I was going to produce in this pink period. I did produce a lot but mainly it wasn't about me; I didn't feel like I needed to use my feelings."
But spontaneous unhappiness is hard to come by, and when it does Calle seizes on it with delight, prodding it and examining it, until suddenly it evaporates and she can't re-create the sensation. "I had a project that I wanted to do when I split up with the last man that I was with, but the pain went before I had time to put together the idea. In a way it was very frustrating - there just wasn't enough pain and I couldn't continue to do the work once it was gone. It would have been too superficial. I had even started to film myself, but I had to abandon it because suddenly I felt fine again. That time I dealt with the break-up in the most normal way, the way that other people do: I met someone else."