From Suite venitienne
Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist. There’s a good article on Sophie Calle in the winter Cultural Geographies (“Sophie Calle’s art of following and seduction” by Janet Hand).
Here are some of Calle’s pieces:
“On Monday, February 16, 1981 I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6 the job came to an end.”
Hand adds this detail: “The hotel, then, takes the form of a photographic and diaristic series describing her intimate encounters with the business and personal possessions of guests whilst working in the hotel.”
In The sleepers (1979) she photographed sleeping people.
In The address book (1983), “Calle used a ‘found’ address book to follow ‘virtually’ the man to whom the book belonged and whom, we are led to believe, she didn’t ‘know’. She visited people whose details were contained in the book, and photographed objects in some way connected to the man she was profiling and with whom she otherwise had no relation. Calle then published her work as ‘an instalment piece’ in the French national newspaper Liberation. It was in this project that Calle came most closely into conflict
with issues of privacy and rights. The man demanded a right of reply in the newspaper, we are told.”
Finally, in “Suite venitienne … she determined to follow a man she hardly knew (Henri B.) to Venice.” This was connected to a set of following pieces, like Twenty years later (2001), in which she asked a gallery owner, Emmanuel
Perrotin, to hire a detective to follow her. In The Shadow, 1981, she’d done the same piece, asking her mother to hire a detective to follow her.
In S.V., she writes:
“For months I followed strangers on the street _/ for the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took notes of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of the conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice.”
Calle followed the man to Venice in a number of ways – for instance, she called all of the hotels in Venice until she found him. And she does eventually attract his attention. Henri B. probably knows about her reputation:
“When Calle encounters Henri B., when he recognizes her and prohibits her from taking his photograph in Venice, even when she follows him back to Paris by train, we are invited to ask what she wants from him. It is to the dramatized issues of consequence and judgement, and to the relation of judgement to aesthetics, that the chase demands our attention. Calle may conjure and preserve the idea of the work in the narrative of Suite ve´nitienne, but just as significantly, the narrative itself is irreducible to a self-referring statement in distinction from an authoring subject.”
Now, I love the descriptions of these pieces. I have immense respect for artists like Calle and Chris Burden, but I know that there is nothing so alienating and infuriating to even literary people than this kind of art. In fact, the first question (and least important) that is asked about such things is, is it art. This question was important in 1920, but just as certain currencies from the 20s have become mere curiosities (Mussolini’s lire, for instance), so, too, certain questions from that time have no exchange-value left. Much more interesting is: does this work? When Burden did a piece he called (as I recall) asshole, where he cuts his hair and buys a suit to look like an FBI agent, goes to a conference to which he has been invited, and answers all questions asked of him like an asshole, does that work?
The problem with conceptual art is the opening it gives to the critic. The art world suffers from the way in which critics have colonized the art world. Someone like Sophie Calle does her act, and collects the relics of it, and might even tell about it, but it is the critic that really conveys the work.
Art critics sometimes do a strange thing. Imagine going to your local club to listen to some band. Imagine a group of people getting out on the dance floor and announcing that you can only dance to this band in the following way, using the following gestures and steps. While that would not go over at a club, it often happens in the art world. Critics who are quite brilliant, like Rosalind Krauss, are also quite adept at doing this. If you read Art Forum, you will find article after article squeezing the work it talks about to death, as the critic fits himself into the art ‘space.’
I have an idea of the kind of demonic impulse to which Calle responds. One of her works is called The Wardrobe:
“I saw him for the first time in December 1985, at a lecture he was giving. I found him attractive, but one thing bothered me: he was wearing an ugly tie. The next day I anonymously sent him a thin brown tie. Later, I saw him at a restaurant and he was wearing it. Unfortunately, it clashed with his shirt. It was then that I decided to take on the task of dressing him from head to toe: I would send him one article of clothing
every year at Christmas.”
I once, as a joke, purchased several babilicous postcards in Florida, and then, as I was passing through a town in Mississippi, I looked up several names in the phonebook and wrote Missing you so much! heart, Candi, and sent them from New Orleans to those addresses. This might have been a cruel thing to do, I’ll grant you, but as a prank it worked extremely well. I strongly doubt I broke up anybody’s marriage, but surely I started a few dinner table conversations. Or perhaps these postcards never arrived, who knows?
Well, I have been pondering these things since my friend, D., sent me the invite to our mutual friend Thomas Glassford’s opening at the MUCA Campus of UNAM this spring. The opening is called Exquisite Corps, and the invite came with a critical epilogue that expounded in highly theoretical terms about the work without, actually, saying anything about the work whatsoever. The invite mentioned other of Thomas’ pieces, like Valley – “an upended ranch cot slit down the middle by a tin gutter” – the description of which I would bet the critical nabob got from Thomas himself. The shame of this is that the critical colonization of Thomas’ pieces really does nothing to help you see them. Quite the contrary. How many artists do I know who have to suffer being pimped out by a critic in order to be seen at all? It is a sad and inverted situation. And the worst of it is, nobody wants to talk about it. The artists can afford to alienate the critics if they are going to have any success – which depends on the critics. This is the sign of a rentier regime about to fall.
And the ones that do bitch are usually the most conservative -- they don't really give a fuck about colonization, they just want attention for another fatiguing go around about figuration a la Jed Perl.
This is the sign of a rentier regime about to fall. This isn't what Duchamp meant at all, at all...