Fort Mason Spotlights Artist Sophie Calle

by Sura Wood

Ruthless in the use of her own experience as material, conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s life may be her greatest work of art.

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle has hired a private investigator to follow her; stalked and surreptitiously photographed a man touring Venice; impersonated a stripper; invited a series of strangers to sleep in her bed so she could observe them; and, while employed as a hotel chambermaid, photographed possessions guests left behind and imagined the lives of their owners. Ruthless in the use of her own experience as material, Calle’s life may be her greatest work of art.

And at age 63, Calle’s life is a work of art in progress; a portion is on view in “Missing,” her largest exhibition in the U.S. to date. Curated by Evelyne Jouanno, founding director of the independent art-commissioning organization Ars Citizen, the show brings together five bodies of work Calle has created since the 1980s that revolve around her ongoing preoccupation with loss and absence. The projects are installed in four buildings at Fort Mason, a setting whose panoramic Bay views provide a cinematic backdrop for Calle’s unconventional, experiential art form.

“The architecture and geography of Fort Mason, the sweeping vistas and expanses, do a great service to her work,” says Aimee Le Duc, Fort Mason director of Exhibitions and Public Programs. “The show is about a journey and, as they travel from venue to venue, visitors will have a parallel experience.”

Calle’s fearlessness, voyeurism and penchant for violating boundaries have brought her attention and a measure of notoriety. Though she has her detractors, “For others,” writes Mary Kaye Schilling in the New York Times, “Calle’s freewheeling imagination, coupled with an ability to turn emotional chaos into compelling
narratives, is thrilling.”

The artist famously transformed romantic rejection into triumph when she took a painful break-up letter she received from a lover and turned it into what would become one of her best-known pieces, “Take Care of Yourself.” Calle invited 107 women to perform, read aloud, comment on, analyze and interpret the letter’s contents. Among the diverse group of respondents: actresses, singers and dancers, a grammarian, a physicist,
a psychologist, a philosopher, a geisha, a clown and a markswoman who sent back a version riddled with bullet holes. Singer Camille taps a beat on her chest and sings the letter a cappella; an opera diva delivers a rousing aria on the steps of a grand staircase; a crossword writer organizes the words in a puzzle format; and a parrot chews up the paper and eats it. The videos, photographs and text form a chorus of female anger, hurt, empathy and scathing humor.

“I didn’t want the women expressing sentiment for me,” explained Calle in Interview magazine. “I have my own sentiment—I don’t need that of others. The work was not about revenge. Even so, the women spoke from their own points of view and probably many of them had been abandoned by men at some point in their lives.”

“Rachel Monique,” a work about the 2006 death of the artist’s mother, is perhaps the most deeply personal of the installations here. A woman who “liked to be the object of discussion,” Monique became just that after her daughter installed a camera at the foot of her deathbed and documented the last moments of her life. The 11-minute video, “Couldn’t Catch Death,” is among a selection of artworks displayed in the Fort Mason chapel that includes a taxidermied giraffe named for her mother (Calle’s Paris studio is filled with stuffed animals representing friends and family), recorded excerpts from Monique’s diaries, Monique’s last word, souci (French for worry), embroidered on fabric hung throughout the space, and photographs of tombstones. The latter element harkens back to the start of Calle’s photography career, when she was 18, and living in Bolinas. There she took her first photographs, of headstones in the town’s cemetery. She subsequently purchased a burial plot in the same cemetery for herself; the contract is on display as part of “True Stories,” a section on the ground floor of the stately General’s Residence (through July 3). It features an array of personally meaningful objects: a blonde wig, an ample black bra, a wedding dress, a lone red shoe, a letter Calle wrote to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a burned mattress. Numbers beside each item refer to photographs accompanied by brief back stories, assembled in a booklet.

“Sophie’s work is always, in some way, autobiographical, but she’s unique in the way she processes and presents these things,” observes Frish Brandt, president of Fraenkel Gallery (a concurrent photography exhibition, “Sophie Calle: my mother, my cat, my father, in that order,” runs at FraenkelLAB through August 26). “Her work is also very psychological. That’s why it comes as close to opera or novels or film as it does to media we more readily associate with art. She’s unlike anyone else.”

Two of Calle’s more recent works, both realized while she was in Istanbul, are displayed in the waterfront Firehouse. “Voir la mer” features films of Turkish residents getting their first-ever glimpse of the open sea. They’re shot from behind as they stand on a beach; when they turn around, the camera captures their reactions. In “The Last Image,” Calle asks blind people to describe the last thing they saw before they lost their sight. The work comprises a photograph of each person, a concise description of that final image and Calle’s photographic re-creation of that memory. “For four years, I’ve been caressing my husband’s face,” says the subject in “Blind with Husband.” “I can’t see him anymore but
I refuse to let his features fade.” After a doctor accidentally injected his eyes during a glaucoma check-up with a solution that would blind him, a man remembers seeing “a bus, like a red cloud”; another looks at the sunrise for the final time the morning of his surgery. A particularly poetic memory, “Blind with Rifle,” recalls “a quail taking flight, the dog springing forward, the hunter’s movement,” and a split second later, the fateful, life-changing rifle shot.

“Sophie’s questions are complicated and personal and yet universal at the same time,” Brandt says. “In her story, we find parts of our own.”

June 29 → Aug. 20
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture

2 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco