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[text] Sophie Calle [e]

On the Trail of the Ego: Sophie Calle's Pursuits

by Petra Gördüren

»In April 1981, at my request, my mother went to a detective agency. She hired them to follow me, to report on my daily activities, and to provide photographic evidence of my existence.«
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1] Sophie Calle uses these dispassionate terms in the introduction to her work The Detective. The very artist who is famous for works in which the life of strangers is observed and investigated, subjects herself to the eyes of a sleuth. Both the detective and Sophie Calle write a detailed report on the course of that one day. Whereas normally the principle behind a covert pursuit is that the observed person is unaware of being observed, in Sophie Calle's peculiar staging it is the detective who does not realize that the person he is shadowing knows of his existence.

Equipped with these facts, the spectator witnesses a strange double game: although the artist carefully plans her day, the deeper meaning of her undertakings remains a mystery to the detective. Sophie Calle leads her pursuer to places in Paris which are of personal significance to her: through the Montparnasse graveyard for example, which she crossed so often on her way to school, and to the Jardin de Luxembourg, where as a child she exchanged her first kisses, but also to her studio on rue d'Ulm and to the Louvre, where she tarries a while in front of a painting by Titian. On the borderline between everyday life and mise-en-scène, she meets up with people who are close to her: her publisher, several friends, and finally her father, although by that time the detective has already lost track of her. The respective notes made by the artist and the detective enter into a taut fragmented dialogue, and in the end, minor divergences between the artist's and the detective's diaries culminate in different versions of how the artist spent the evening of said day. [2]

Sophie Calle observes, pursues and surveys the life of her fellow human beings in many of her works, constantly on the trail of the stories concealed behind the normality of everyday life. The concept artist documents the information thus gathered in texts and photographs, whereby many of her works bear the mark of an obvious skepticism about the image, especially as the often not very meaningful photographs only constitute credible evidence when seen in combination with the texts.

Whereas in The Detective Sophie Calle herself enters into the role of the observed person, she began work as an artist by pursuing for a time strangers she met by chance on the streets of Paris. Soon she replaced this rather disorganized procedure which she recorded in diary-like notes that had no artistic ambition [3] by carefully conceived mises-en-scène which are often reminiscent of sociological experiments. By laying down the "rules of the game" before carrying out such a project, it is possible for the artist to distance herself from the often very private theme of her works. [4] The regulated indiscretion with which Sophie Calle approaches the life of strangers becomes a formal strategy and guarantees artistic freedom.

The artist continued her early pursuits in the 1980 work Suite vénitienne [5]. This involved a trip to Venice in pursuit of a man whom she had followed on the street, and whose acquaintance she later made by chance. Disguised in a blonde wig, raincoat and sunglasses, she followed him through the city with a camera, noting down not only the daily events, but also her own thoughts, wishes and disappointments. The story reached its climax in the meeting between the pursuer and the pursued, making any further observation impossible. Suite vénitienne seems like a sentimental cross between a diary and a detective story, a photo-novel and an investigative reportage. Yet the photographs and texts which Sophie Calle combined to create this work provide only a vague image of the person pursued. The impression the spectator gets is of discovering a lot about the pursuer and almost nothing about the pursued.

Sophie Calle undertook a renewed attempt to come closer to a stranger's life in 1983 with her work The Hotel, a series of 21 diptychs which show all the signs of a traveler's nightmare [6] As the artist informs us, she worked for three week as a housemaid in a Venetian hotel, but instead of cleaning and tidying the rooms allocated to her each day, she unscrupulously went through the travelers' luggage, photographing individual items and noting down her observations. The photographs and texts confront the spectator with fragments of strangers' biographies, personal peculiarities, intimate and everyday habits. Through the eyes of the artist the spectator becomes a voyeur, but even then does not gain a clear impression of these unknown persons.

The aesthetic problem to which the skeptical Sophie Calle devotes her attention as an artist is the potential and failure of art to make binding statements about one's own and other people's personalities. In The Detective, for example, this central dilemma is highlighted in the disagreements between the report by the artist and that by the detective: although the detective, who stands for the spectator, witnesses her actions over the course of a whole day, he gains no access to the artist's personality, is unable to sketch a portrait of her. He neither succeeds in deciphering the meaning of the places to which the artist leads him, nor of the encounters which she deliberately arranges. The photographs which the detective is commissioned to take to complement his report are blurred and often shot from a great distance, so that they too contribute little toward painting an authentic portrait of the person pursued. [7]

With The Detective, as with other works, Sophie Calle addresses the theme of the failure of the "myth of information" [8]Despite all his professional routine, from his distanced perspective the detective gains no insight into the artist's personality, not even when she deliberately organizes her day to include meaningful encounters. [9] Only the spectator who sees Sophie Calle's notes as part of a work of art gets some impression of the artist's efforts to shape the course of her day so as to produce a representative image, and thereby acquires insight into her [artistic] individuality. Ultimately it is here that the art-theoretical dimension of Sophie Calle's work becomes clear: her investigative pursuits, be they real or invented, certainly bear witness to the artist's personal obsession, but more than anything else they bear witness to the failure of art to penetrate a stranger's life, to understand and grasp it through observation.

1 Sophie Calle, Double Game, Violette Editions, London, 1999, p. 122f; cf. the French original Sophie Calle, A suivre , Actes Sud, Arles, 1998 (Double jeux, vol. 4), p. 111. During exhibitions this explanation is mounted on the wall in adhesive lettering. ^

2 Cf. Calle, 1998, pp. 111-144; Calle, 1999, pp. 122-137. ^

3 The handwritten notes complemented by photographs, snippets from daily newspapers, postage stamps and drawings were later edited by Sophie Calle under the title Préambule; cf. Calle, 1998, pp. 10-35; cf. Calle 1999, pp. 68-75. ^

4 Cf. Barbara Heinrich : »Die wahren Geschichten der Sophie Calle«, in: Die wahren Geschichten der Sophie Calle, exhib. cat. Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 2000, pp. 6-18, p. 6. On Sophie Calle's "rules of the game" see Gianni Romano, Sophie Calle: »Die Exotik des Objekts«, in: Noema 38/1992, pp. 50-56, p. 56; Guy Scarpeta: »Sophie Calle. Le jeu et la distance«, in: Art Press 111/1987, pp. 17-19; p. 17. ^

5 Calle, 1998, op. cit., pp. 37-109; Calle ,1999, op. cit., pp. 76-121. ^

6 The first panel of these diptychs shows the untouched bed in the respective room, and under it is the detailed report by the artist; the second panel always carries a series of black-and-white photographs which Calle is supposed to have taken in the disorderly hotel rooms; cf. Sophie Calle, L'hôtel, Actes Sud, Arles, 1998 (Double jeux, vol. 4); Calle, 1999, op. cit., pp. 139-185. ^

7 In the publication The Detective it is noticeable that more pictures have been used than in the exhibited work. In particular, photographs in which Sophie Calle is relatively easily recognizable are not included in the exhibition version of the work. ^

8 Heinrich, 2000, op. cit., p. 7. ^

9 Cf. Nehme Guralnik, Sophie Calle: True Stories, in: Sophie Calle: True Stories, exhib. cat., Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1997, pp. 218-209, p. 212. ^

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