Double Game and Beyond: Can Sophie Calle Remain Relevant?

Double game - Sophie Calle & Paul Auster - cover“Voyeurism, exhibitionism, and a needling strain of sadism course through Calle’s work, which is inescapably fascinating even as it’s ethically disturbing — and often quietly melancholic. She’s the artist as stalker, delving fearlessly into the minutiae of other people’s lives long before popular culture took up similar material in “reality” TV shows …”

—David Rimanelli, Artforum

In 1992, the American writer Paul Auster used Sophie Calle as a thinly disguised character in his novel, Leviathan. Unlike Calle, who uses the lives of others at will, he actually asked her permission and she, delighted to be a character in a novel, authorized him to do so. And so be can a kind of game that ultimately takes the cliché of art imitating live — and vice versa  — to dizzying new heights.

In his description of the character, who he calls Maria, Auster accurately describes some of Calle’s real life projects, and in other cases, he makes up projects that sound as if they could have been done by here. His description of the fictional Maria gives the viewer insight into the real Sophie Calle:

“Maria 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 none of these description was accurate and in the end I don’t think she can be pigeonholed in any way. Her work was too nutty for that, too idiosyncratic, too personal to be though of as belonging to any particular medium or discipline. Ideas would take hold of her, she would work on projects, there would be concrete results that could be shown in galleries, but this activity didn’t stem so much 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 decided to turn Auster’s writings into a project as well as a kind of game — she collected all the projects she had actually done, and that he described, into an exhibit as well as a book, juxtaposing the pages, with the appropriate paragraphs outlined in red, with the projects, and in other cases, where Auster himself made up the projects, she took his cues and executed the project as a new undertaking. The result is a provocative blend of fact, fantasy, and fiction with a unique twist — though it does not encompass all of Calle’s important projects (notably absent are Exquisite Pain and The Appointment). It becomes a retrospective of diverse works in one neat package.

Fascinated by the relationship between public and personal lives — her own and others’ — Calle has often crossed boundaries of privacy. Frances Morris, writing in Art Now, says that this fascination (or obsession) “has led Calle to investigate patterns of behavior using techniques akin to those of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. It has also led her to investigate her own behavior so that her live, as lived and as imagined, as informed many of her most interesting works.”

I like to imagine that Sophie Calle fictionalizes her life in some ways — not to dupe the viewer, but to gain the courage to behave in ways to advance her art. She may well have an alter ego — though the alter ego’s name is still Sophie Calle — that allows her to play a stripper, poke through strangers’ belongings, stalk acquaintances and then publicize the results, or create performances based on the private lives of others. The question becomes whether an artist who is so inventive and bold can remain relevant in the era of social media, in which everyone puts their own life up for grabs — or, as noted by the critic at the top of this essay — reality TV, YouTube, and all the different venues that private and public lives blur in 21st century media.

Calle’s diaristic impulses foreshadowed the kind of self-revelation common to personal blogs and visual platforms like Instagram. These forms of social media allow anyone who wishes to participate to be both voyeur and exhibitionist; and they’ve become so pervasive in our culture that the subtle shock value of work like Calle’s, or any other artist whose works or performances deal in self-revelation may not seem like such a big deal to a new generation of viewers. Of course, one might argue that blogs aren’t art, and appeal to a different audience, but they do epitomize the blurring of the private and public. Then, when art is presented purportedly doing the same thing, it may not seem as unique or thought-provoking as it once was.

It’s Calle’s aesthetic as a conceptualist that keeps her work stimulating for me. I love the bold grids of framed text juxtaposed with images, whether in installation or in the pages of a book. The idea matters, particularly in conceptual art, but ideas can become dated once their initial freshness, uniqueness, or even shock value diminishes. The Detective, for example, doesn’t resonate with me as much as it did when I first encountered the series. That the arrangement of reams of text and pictures aren’t strikingly arranged doesn’t help. There’s little engagement to be had apart from the project’s concept, which, frankly, seems trivial and lacking in emotional content.

A portion of the installation, The Blind, by Sophie Calle

A portion of the installation, The Blind, by Sophie Calle

I react differently to the series of The Blind, however. There’s something compelling in the display of the words and images, and so much compassion in the photography of the sightless subjects. The concept of beauty, as presented in this series, comes off as simple, soothing, and universal.

Interest in artist’s books and fine editions is certainly strong and in this context, Calle’s work shines. Books on her work are a unique blend of monograph and finely produced limited edition. As described by Anna Gerber in The International Review of Graphic Design, the book version of Double Game “was that rare thing, an artist’s monograph that was actually a work of art in and of itself, a furthering of Calle’s vision rather than ‘just’ another exhibition spin-off.” The book version of the conceptual exhibit Exquisite Pain can be described similarly. Photos I’ve seen of the exhibition installation seem quite striking, but it’s equally pleasurable to hold this chronicle of a broken heart in one’s hands. Yes, it’s a confessional, but like The Blind, has a sends of universality — who among us has not suffered a broken heart, and felt awfully sorry for ourselves over it? Calle’s interviews of people detailing the moment when they most suffered doesn’t trivialize the pain of a broken heart, but helps put it in perspective for herself and the viewer.

Delving into Double Game was for me a very rich and stimulating experience, but since it covers so much ground, it can be rather overwhelming to consider as a whole. It’s more satisfying to think about Calle’s projects individually; less so through the all-encompassing lens of  “Maria.” Though Maria comes off as bizarre and compulsive, Calle seems completely delighted to complete a circle of life imitating art that imitates life. Or vice versa. As that is somewhat the point: In Double Game, it’s hard to tell where life leaves off and art begins, and at what point art and life merge. In hear art and life Calle plays characters, some of whom are not who she is, but at other times, she’s playing a character whose persona is Sophie Calle. She’s not trying to dupe the viewer, but simply shooing different aspects of herself.

In a New York Times review of this exhibit, Grace Glueck writes that “as a diarist, Ms. Calle’s amusingly deadpan, obsessively detailed reports on her activities have a certain fascination. But unfortunately she is no great shakes as a photographer, and the long sequences of shots documenting her actions are less than compelling.” The latter, I suspect, describes The Detective, and Suite Venetienne, which I agree aren’t her strongest concepts or presentations. Other critics have described her photography as unremarkable, but then, Calle does not pretend to be an accomplished photographer. Glueck also suggests that someone who lives so vicariously is to be pitied, perhaps momentarily forgetting that this is not Calle’s life but her art, and that sometimes her life is her art. It’s as if there is no longer a real Sophie Calle, but merely a Sophie Calle simulacrum.

If Calle’s work can be put in a nutshell, it might be the exploration of public lives and private selves. Though an age-old idea, it resonates because we all long to connect with other human stories. Much as I admire her work, I found myself a bit more uncomfortable with some of her projects than I was when I first encountered them. At a time when all of us are faced with disturbing governmental and corporate intrusions into privacy, somehow, I didn’t find The Address Book, Suite Venetienne, or The Hotel as clever and amusing as I once did. I don’t want the government prying into my private life; why is it better when done in the name of Art?

Exquisite pain by Sophie CalleI haven’t kept up with Sophie Calle for some time, aside from retrospectives and the continuing travels of Exquisite Pain. I’m eager and curious to see what will come next, as I do consider her, apart from my few reservations, a great talent and remarkably inventive. I wonder if she has had to step back and pause to consider how to proceed in an era when self-revelation is commonplace and spying is deemed reprehensible. But I doubt it. More likely, she’s working on a way to reinvent the persona of Sophie Call so that she can do what she seems to love best — indulge in her obsessions.