An orchestrator of situations and 'private games', Sophie Calle's artworks unpack the dichotomies of personal and public, reality and fiction, and art and life in her ongoing unfolding and revisiting of stories.Read More
In particular, she is recognised for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives.
For Suite Vénitienne (Venetian Suite) (1980—1994), Calle followed a man she encountered briefly in Paris, referred to as Henri B. Documenting her journey in black-and-white photographs, maps, and texts, Calle shadows Henri B. all the way to Venice, and back to Paris. Later iterations of the work saw the artist re-present the journey in a confessional sound installation and a text borrowing the physical and narrative format of a detective casebook.
The elaboration of chance events extends to The Address Book (1983), which began when Calle found an address book on the street, belonging to a man named Pierre. Treating her finding as a quest to get to know Pierre through the contacts listed in his address book, Calle documented this process in interviews, personal commentary, and photographs, and published a series of articles in the newspaper Libération.
The events and interactions of Calle's early practice are characteristic of her oeuvre as a whole, with surveillance, voyeurism, and narrative used as compelling and sometimes controversial devices through which to explore intimacy and human experience. Calle's practice has also been seen to align with the Oulipo French literary movement of the 1960s, in which constraints are sought to generate new structures and methods of writing.
In a conversation with Catherine Shaw for Ocula Magazine, Calle states: 'I am an artist trying to provocate through different situations, to use them as a tool in order to make a work of art. Sometimes it is through using life and text or images. I have a tendency to work with quite arbitrary situations.'
Calle's storytelling has oftentimes examined personal events in the artist's own life. When Calle represented France in the 2007 Venice Biennale, she presented Take Care of Yourself (2007), where she asked over a hundred women to analyse a break up email to Calle from her former partner, with the work's title taken from the email's closing line. The installation itself reveals the various interpretations of the email—interpretive dance, legal annotations, performative responses, musical translations, and spelling and grammar corrections, amongst others.
In her project Rachel, Monique, which was published as a book in 2017, Calle processes the death of her mother through diary excerpts, narrrative storytelling, and photographs. These somewhat obsessive, performative exercises in processing intimate loss and grief operate as a cathartic outlet for the artist, while establishing an affinity with her audience through the sharing of universal experiences.
Calle is known to appropriate distinct formats such as the documentary, forensic report, or genre novel, and chooses her mediums based on what she views as the most effective way to communicate the outcomes of an event she has facilitated. Voir la mer (2011) loosely borrows from the documentary portrait convention, comprising a series of video portraits which capture the reactions of residents of Istanbul as they see the ocean for the first time.
Though her practice can be seen to have a sociological or anthropological dimension, Calle states her work is not produced for sociological reasons, but for artistic reasons. For Voir la mer, Calle begins with shots of the residents' backs, leaving their initial reactions private before they face the camera. In this sense, Calle complicates the boundaries of chance and control, authorship and integrity, while nevertheless revealing poignant moments of her subjects' experience.