A (recent) short paper I wrote on conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

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There’s nothing overly theatrical about Sophie Calle’s work yet the response seems to illicit overwhelming feelings and emotions from the viewer.  From the documentation of sleepers to a man’s description of his life through the experiences of his colleagues, friends and family, Calle’s work emphasizes the absence of the artists to create portraits and capture universal ideas of contemporary life.  However, many people may beg to differ on her observations and speculation of peoples’ lives as a way to create something similar to what the paparazzi does with celebrity life.  Yet, she doesn’t glamorize and she is unapologetic in her creation of these individuals.  Strangely enough, she is mirroring back what is already there just not through the eyes of the subject.  They do that themselves.  Calle’s work, strangely, offers a therapeutic side effect as stated in an article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian:

“Exquisite Pain (2003) was prompted by her then lover’s failure to meet her in New Delhi. On each day of her journey there, she had taken a photograph and written how she was looking forward to seeing him. This became a book, which also included other people’s worst memories – a woman who had given birth to a dead child, a boy hearing his father had died.  Their stories did have a side effect: they made my pain manageable”.

Calle’s work serves as an example that post modern art involves the viewer within a much more voyeuristic perspective while eliminating herself from the artwork and examines the human condition, identity and intimacy.

Throughout Calle’s work, there is a strong sense of detachment between the art and the artist.  Calle presents her work in such a way that there is a definite detachment between the art and the artist.  She depicts this best in her work entitled, The Sleepers (1979).  Detachment from the subject matter allows her work to take on the distance necessary to capture facts necessary for the viewer to form emotions and/or thoughts.  In the sciences, we see the necessity to detach the clinician from the patient, the subject to come to conclusions about disease states and reach some hypothesis that brings the researcher to some idea of standard of care.  To some degree, this is what Calle’s work tries to show the viewer.  That her experiments necessitate a distance for the observer to piece together the connections between the relationship of the artist to her subject in their minds.  To have the viewer engage in the way that Calle was unable to do so.  To show a rift of some sorts.  Weintraub states,

Calle exposes the causes and symptoms of today’s soullessness by identifying various profes sions that serve as proxies for personal relationships.  For instance, psychologists plumb meticu lously preserving “professional distance”.  Memories, motives, passions, fears, and obsessions are ferretted out utilizing the dispassionate tools of science and cognition.  In her best-known work, Calle dramatizes how psychological research has replaced love and affection as the means to access intimate aspects of personality (Weintraub, 66).

Aside from emotional detachment, Calle presents her observations as findings through the most minimal of aesthetics in this particular work.  It has been observed that the camera is her uncongenial tool that she uses to exploit its intrusive lens and accedes to its mechanistic anonymity.  Through it, she formalizes her role as an observer, not a friend or a lover, of her bedroom partners (Weintraub, 67).  As I viewed photographs of The Sleepers (1979), my first impression was a strange sense of intimacy even though the pictures were in black and white and followed one right after the other within columns and rows.  I wanted to know the stories of each person and to be included, somehow, in the room as well.  The minimalist look and feel of the photography provoked me to imagine the relationships Calle may have, inadvertently,  formed through this work.  Even though she separated herself and is showing and telling of the participants, the permanence created within the documentation achieves what Calle was wanting from the viewer – to show the effect of detachment and the ambivalence it creates.  The viewer is unintentionally drawn into an intimate moment that has been made public and to have the viewer create what they will.

Detachment is crucial, Calle creates an unusual dynamic where voyeurism and scrutiny of the subject play an integral role in our desire to know what is unknown.  In the work, Suite Venitienne (1980), Calle follows a man to clandestinely capture a portrait based strictly on his daily activities in the hopes of an adventure or drama.  Classified work, espionage and intrigue pique our collective interest.  From film noir to horror films, individuals seem to seek that which thrills them and excites the senses.  Yet, it’s not common practice to follow people around to see if anything interesting comes to fruition.  Frankly, we leave this activity up to detectives or conceptual artists like Calle.  In Suite, Calle equips herself with the detective paraphernalia of a Grade-B movie and embarks on a thirteen-day escapade that mimicked a romantic melodrama but was devoid of its most essential ingredient-passion (Weintraub, 68).  Only every now and again does one stumble upon something on the street or walking through an empty corridor and serendipitously find something unique (i.e., a receipt, a movie stub, or a note) that we can fathom of a life other than our own.  That is what most of us do from childhood into adulthood.  We imagine when we’re young and as we age, we still imagine.  Yet, what we imagine is usually derived from our own neuroses and inclination to compare and contrast our lives.  Weintraub claims, “The narrative reverberates with the ache of a loveless life.  It is a reminder that the only romantic adventure in many people’s lives is contrived.  Suite Venitienne is an artistic fabrication, but it tells the true story of people whose erotic sensations depend on fantasy (Weintraub, 68).

Although entertaining to some degree, Calle also shows that identity is dichotomous because it is both private and public.  Personal information becomes public for specification and nominal purposes.  Yet, when is it permissible to utilize an identity for the sake of creating art?  Calle oversteps the boundaries and limitations of real world situations to create art work for the masses in such a way that is not too dissimilar to what celebrity writers and inquisitors have been doing for ages.  The only difference is that Calle asks the art world to examine through a different lens, universal ideas of social constructs through self-eradication (as Weintraub titles her essay on Calle’s work).  This dual nature of identity must be seen as a voyeur and she sets this up perfectly through The Notebook Man (1983).  She takes the liberty of creating an investigative report out of a found object – an address book.

Interviewing and photographing the individuals listed in Pierre D.’s address book, Calle gathered information about his professional, social, and personal life.  The results comprise an artwork that took the form of thirty installments published in the Paris daily newspaper between August and September 1983.  The newspaper setting escalated the power of this intrusion.  Art may be a fic tion, but newspaper reports are assumed to be factual (Weintraub, 69).

The use of a an address book and other people’s accounts of an individual to create a portrait and summation of an individual other than the individual themselves is what Calle tries to show may actually be the truth.  Maybe, her ability to investigate the notion of a self through others is meant to show how self-reflective others perceptions may truly be.  This is prevalent in most contemporary art.  The idea that the process and the actual searching and finding of the subject is much more interesting than a final product.  In showing us the personal and intimate moments of a stranger (even herself), Calle shows something universal, our ultimate solitary existence with the compulsion to be interconnected.  Yet, with all the trappings of modern technology, her older still remains relevant in our own examination of how we place ourselves within a community, a culture and within the global landscape.  As one reads in Weintraub’s conclusion of Sophie Calle’s work,

Today’s workplace and home life often deprive people of opportunities for human interaction.  Surveys report that social disintegration is rampant.  Community bonds are rarely established because we move frequently.  Our network of acquaintances is dominated by work, not family.  Single-person households proliferate.  Home is often a refuge from danger and not a center of congenial social exchange.  Televisions supply mealtime conversation.  Hallmark cards express our intimate communications.  The computer, bureaucracy, and the media impersonalize life.  We can dial for shrinks, sex, jokes, and horoscopes.  These are some of the causes.  Sophie Calle documents their effects (Weintraub, 70).

Works Cited

Weintraub, Linda.  Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society 1970s-1990s.  Litchfield, CT: Art’s Insights, Inc., Publishers, 1996.

Wikipedia entry for Sophie Calle

UK Guardian Article, Sophie Calle: Stalker, Stripper, Sleeper, Spy

Reference and brief description of The Sleepers on Art We Love

The virtually untraceable art collective HUSH has done an excellent job at creating work that is fugitive and fleeting. Contemporary art increasingly entails questioning aspects of consumerism, commoditization, and the prevailing system of values over creating something for our eyes to gaze upon. HUSH’s work—a hybrid of activism and criminal activity—provokes us to see all the aforementioned within a legal construct, yet through an artistic lens. Politics and law serve as their ready-mades. They command our intellect be involved when examining their work and to react with a critical eye.

The surreptitious nature of their art heightens its value without much effort on their part. Based on the economic model of supply and demand, HUSH’s work is priceless. Not only is it unfeasible to sell the output of what they produce, the group takes it a step further and manages to catapult any documentation of their work. It becomes irretrievable and irreproducible.

In reminding us that art does not have to become a commodity, HUSH also calls into question the necessity for a maker. Is identification necessary? Should the public or HUSH followers know these renegade, almost vigilante, artists? I say no. The only individuals who should be privy to their identities are the collaborators themselves. This enigmatic nature makes their work all the more potent and proves a serious challenge to the art world. In some ways, their effective anonymity could herald the demise of the concept of the artist. Yet, I’m sure with their continued efforts to create incendiary work that provokes and thrusts its way into our visual landscapes, they must continue to stay apparitions.

Paradoxically, there is safety for these artists living and working outside the boundaries of the art world. Their activities seem to show us that we are not as free as we would like to think. I’d like to imagine that this clever art collective sits and connives atop some constructed Bentham panopticon, keeping watch.

Originally published to Art Practical for Shotgun Reviews April 2010