Sophie Calle, the ‘voyeur’ that we all carry inside | Babelia

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“On Monday, February 16, 1981, I was temporarily hired as a maid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. Twelve rooms on the fourth floor were assigned to me. During the course of my cleaning duties, I would examine the belongings of hotel guests and observe, in detail, lives that were foreign to me. On Friday March 6, my contract ended ”. Thus begins the story of L’Hotel, one of the most provocative works of the conceptual artist Sophie Calle (Paris, 1953). A visual and written diary, created through the trail of others.

For three weeks, with her camera and recorder camouflaged between rags inside a bucket, the author meticulously analyzed objects that did not belong to her. He unashamedly read half-written postcards, hastily written notes, illustrated diaries with pictures. With the eagerness of a detective, Calle scanned the wastebaskets, analyzed the way the pillow looks after a night, perhaps from insomnia, perhaps from pleasure. He checked the clothes arranged on the hangers, also the one that the suitcases still have. She perfumed and put on makeup with the products that an unknown woman neatly placed on the sink shelf. He ate the foods that others left behind. Throughout the different days he watched the progress of a half-done crossword and found out the date of birth and even the blood type of someone he had never seen. Those empty rooms became the protagonists of a series of portraits; profiles drawn through the belongings of absent subjects. Sometimes the artist managed to hear discussions coming from the other side of the wall. A couple making love. All sound was recorded on his recorder.

L’Hotel It was initially conceived as a book where the images are accompanied by a writing detailing the author’s findings, punctuated by personal reflections. In it, the photographer made use of color for the first time. Page by page, he manages to trap the reader with his obsessions, making him an accomplice of his fantasies and transgressions; at voyeur that we all carry inside. The work invites us to reflect both on the assumptions of our own privacy and on the assumptions and judgments made about other people in relation to the objects that surround them. And it does so by establishing a game between polarities; subverting the border between the known and the unknown; Between public and private; between what is art and what is not.

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First published 1984, L’Hotel It became one of the most emblematic books of this author, an expert in extracting intimate revelations from others, with or without their consent. The Siglio publishing house is responsible for a new edition in English that includes unpublished images as well as a new design, the result of collaboration with the French artist. Its publication coincides with the retrospective that the Center Pompidou in Malaga dedicates, Sophie Calle. An exhibition that addresses some of his most emblematic and innovative works and presents for the first time Mouse Calle, one of his most recent projects. This includes a musical album created in honor of his dead cat featuring 37 musicians, including Bono, Laurie Anderson and Benjamin Biolay. A new incursion by the artist in the experience of mourning, in the relationship that human beings establish with the disappearance of the beings that surround them.

The artist traps the reader with her obsessions, making her an accomplice of her fantasies and transgressions

“At first glance, her works are reminiscent of fotonovelas”, highlights Christine Macel, curator of the exhibition, alluding to the relationship between text and photographic image that the artist has turned into a hallmark since her first work in 1970. The curator uses this feature to link Calle’s work with Nadja, key and autobiographical work of the father of surrealism, André Breton, with which he revolutionized the format of the book. Published in 1928, it represents the beginning of the relationship between the written word and photography and arises from a love relationship started by chance on a street in Paris between the author and a young woman. “The theme of the love relationship [que aborda Nadja] it fits from the outset with that of the impossible possession of the loved object, which, as we shall see, is a fundamental element in various works by Sophie Calle ”, Macel writes in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

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It also has to do with that aimless wandering that the author undertook at the end of the seventies, which led her to follow strangers through the streets of the French capital. He pursued them for sheer pleasure, not because he was interested in them. “I photographed them without their knowing it and wrote down their movements, until I lost sight of them or forgot about them,” explains the artist in the monograph To be continued (Actes Sud). The unexpected meeting with one of these strangers, Henry B., at a reception, where he made her know his intention to travel to Venice, gave rise to her first artist’s book; Venetian Suite (Venetian Suite). Calle followed in the footsteps of his quarry for two weeks through the Italian city, during which time he laid the foundations of his inimitable style. Fables with a tragicomedy tone, where her research methods – sometimes methodical, other arbitrary – merge with fiction and serve the author to evaluate her own emotions.

Detail from 'Room 30', from 'L'Hotel', by Sophie Calle.
Detail from ‘Room 30’, from ‘L’Hotel’, by Sophie Calle.Sophie Calle (Siglio, 2021)

“The absence, the loss, the disappearance and the pain are the central themes of his work”, highlights Macel. “This artist transforms misfortune into the raw material of her stories, something that every good writer, according to André Gide, knows how to do. But he also knows how to use these issues to keep painful emotions at bay and put distance, even to anesthetize them ”. Thus, the author claims to speak “of things that do not work […] I live happy events, I exploit unhappy ones ”. And also: “When I am happy, I do not feel the need to photograph my happiness. Photography is a way of distancing myself from pain, so as not to suffer ”.

“I always write for the wall, not for the page,” says the photographer, who received the prestigious Hasselblad award in 2010. The daughter of an oncologist, a Pop art collector and a Jewish mother, she lived her childhood in front of the Montparnasse cemetery , a place that I crossed several times a day. As a teenager she became a political activist through a Maoist group. She later mobilized for abortion within the MLAC (Movement for the Freedom of Abortion and Contraception), where she helped perform clandestine abortions while studying sociology. In her work she addresses crucial issues for women such as marriage and motherhood.

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'No Sex Last Night',1995 © Sophie Calle, VEGAP, Málaga, 2021.
‘No Sex Last Night’,1995 © Sophie Calle, VEGAP, Málaga, 2021.Sophie Calle (VEGAP, Málaga, 2021)

The first is the object of The husband, (The husband, 1995), the work that opens the exhibition in Malaga and is part of Autobiographies, (The autobiographies), a project in which the photographs leave the wall and are distributed on the floor. In chronological order, the author narrates her relationship with her ex-husband, Greg Shepard, from their first meeting until their divorce, a framework that cultivates the ambiguity between reality and fiction. In the same way, his movie No Sex Last Night (1995) affects this same relationship. It is a tale of love and mourning, the tortuous road taken by the couple by car to Las Vegas, where they plan to get married, during which they recorded their experiences with two video cameras, showing their divergent points of view. At the beginning of the trip, the author will hear the news of the death of her friend, the photographer Hervé Guibert.

“What was the day that I suffered the most?” Is the question that the author poses to anonymous as an investigation, in order to promote a catharsis that alleviates the pain produced by a sentimental breakup. The question shapes Exquisite Pain (Dolor exquisito, 1984-2003), where the author – who claims to have revealed only a small part of her intimacy and declares herself incapable of inventing -, is once again appropriating the intimate memory of others to shape a universe of her own, where nothing is true no lie, nor is it easy to distinguish between reality and fantasy. After all, what is memory but a construction?

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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