Sophie Calle and the Subversion of the Social
by Christina Yglesias
The career and works of Sophie Calle, the French contemporary artist, are difficult to categorize. However, this essay will discuss her her practice as it relates to methods of conceptual art and relational aesthetics. In order to map her practice as moving further from conceptual art and closer to social practice, one of her most well known early works, The Address Book (1983), will be discussed in comparison to her most recent, ongoing work, Here Lie The Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery (2017-2042). In The Address Book, as in many of her works throughout her career, Calle utilizes the documentary methods of conceptual art, combining word and image to document the results of an experiment or experience. In this case, the experience that is documented is the artist’s investigation into a man whose address book she finds on the streets of Paris. While her early works such as The Address Book do incorporate social relationships and interactions as artistic material, her most recent work, Here Lie The Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, more fully situates itself fully into the realm relational aesthetics. In this project, which began in the Spring of 2017, Calle invites participants to write secrets and inter them into a custom obelisk in the historic Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Over the next twenty-five years, she will tend to the project by clearing out the obelisk as it fills, burning them to make room for new secrets. This project marks a shift away from the documentary methods of conceptual art and towards relational aesthetics in which consenting viewer participation becomes more central to her work. Throughout this this shift, Calle consistently utilizes, repositions, and subverts both conceptual art practices and the conventions of relational aesthetics to create work that operates somewhere between the two frameworks but with a very different address to the viewer.
In 1983, Calle discovered an address book on the streets of Paris, where she lives and works. She anonymously returned the book to its owner, referred to in the project as ‘Pierre D.’, but not before photocopying each page. From there, she contacted everyone listed in the book. She intentionally never met the man at the center of the project, but instead stitched together a portrait of him through the ways that his friends, family, and acquaintances described him. She reached out to each of the contacts with the following statement: “I found an address book on the street by chance. Your number was in it. I’d like to meet you.” She met in person with everyone who agreed and discussed Pierre with those individuals. To create the work, which she tilted simply The Address Book, Calle kept a daily diary of her progress of the project as it unfolded, which she published daily in the French newspaper Libération. The book version of the project, the publication of which will be discussed more in depth later, unfolds as a chronology of this diaristic process. The book itself is small and precious, the same size as the average address book. The content is structured by date and name of the person she contacted and is comprised of photographs and text. The photographs are black and white, with a style that has the freedom and messy composition of a snapshot but the richness and poetry of a Cartier Bresson. Two color images are the only exceptions, which are both photographs of postcards sent by Pierre D. to the contacts that Calle met in her investigation.
The first photo in the book is of an address book on the ground, worn and resting on what appears to be the base of a lamp post. It is unclear whether this image is a staging or recreation of the moment that she found the book at the center of the project. The last image in the book is of a blurred landscape that Calle took while on a train to Rome. She ended the the project after over a month by visiting Rome because she learned Pierre spent every summer there. The first portrait image in the book shows a man sitting in a large, seemingly abandoned room with no furniture and a painting resting against a wall. The man takes up a small corner of the image, with only the back of his head showing as sunlight streams into the room in rays of light. The text unfolds as Calle begins to meet the contacts in the book, the first few of which claim to not know Pierre well. Overtime, descriptions of Pierre’s appearance are relayed, as well as attempts to describe his personality and demeanor. Overall he is portrayed as an intellectual, kind man with a love of film, food, and books. He lives alone in a messy apartment, the building of which Calle visits while Pierre is out of town. One page spread shows the image of a marble bust statue of a man with short hair in what appears to be a cemetery. The accompanying body text simple reads, “In a bar in Montparnasse. Talking about Pierre D., she tells me: “It was during the week following his mother’s death that his hair turned white.” 1
It is this pairing of word and image, this documentary practice, that relates Calle to conceptual art. However, she does subvert the often cold and deadpan nature of Conceptual Art to present more intimate subject matter. As described earlier, both her text and images take on a more poetic quality than most Conceptual Art. Through writing that is both diaristic and poetic combined with photographic images that are simultaneously banal and emotionally charged, Calle subverts and critiques conceptual artistic practices. Furthermore, she is concerned more with documenting intimacy and relationships rather than with documentation itself or a self-conscious rejection of idea or status of the art object. As Robert L. Pincus aptly described:
Calle’s enduring concern with paired images and texts reveal and obvious debt to Conceptual art. But that debt is largely one of form, since she has never been pre-occupied, as were many conceptualists of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, with dramatizing the problematic status of the art object or the act of ‘documentation’ itself. Instead, much of Calle’s work suggests a kind of conceptual portraiture, once which dramatizes the relationship between the artist and the subject and weaves together more oblique kinds of information than portraiture has previously ` divulged.” 2
Working as almost a private investigator, Calle voyeuristically entered into her subject’s life through contact with the people that comprised his social sphere. “This is to engage in what Nicolas Bourriard, a decade later, identifies as ‘relational’ art, ‘an art that takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space’”. 3Much of this relational art that Bourriard celebrates operates in a methodological framework where the viewers, more aptly refereed to as participants, have consented to participate. In the least, the individuals are aware of their roles as participants and therefore could chose to opt out of the project. However, in The Address Book and many of her other works, Calle does not ask for permission or consent from her participants. In fact, the man at the center of this project, Pierre D., remained unaware of his own participation until the work was made public. When Calle first published the work in the French newspaper Libération in 1983, Pierre D. demanded that the newspaper publish a nude photograph of the artist as repayment. Calle agreed not to again publish this work during Pierre D.’s lifetime. After his death, the work was published as a book 2012, translated to English for the first time, almost thirty years after the project was carried out.
Calle utilizes a similar approach in her work Suite Venitienne (1980) in which she follows a man from Paris to Venice, trailing him for two weeks, photographing him and documenting his activities, only once encountering him face to face. Similarly, in a later work, Take Care of Yourself, she subjects a breakup email she receives from a lover to scrutiny and analysis by a team of women whose professions provide insight into the nuances of the intimate document of rejection. While this may go against the usual ethics or code of conduct of participatory art, Calle’s own willingness to be vulnerable and expose herself through her work seems to counterbalance the ethical scale. Further, in these three projects, gender, power and control become important underlying themes. The fact that the unwilling, and at certain points, unknowing, central participants in these works are all male is an important detail. Since men already occupy positions of power and control in comparison to women in a patriarchal society, a feminist reading of her work reveals a subversion of this power structure, suggesting a reclaiming of control. The men at the center of her work, instead of materializing as the complex, fleshed-out characters of a portrait, remain as “characterless and faceless male figures…where he can be understood as a subject under investigation barely known to Calle herself”. 4 The men are vehicles for her work, rather central subjects of it. Borrowing the language of feminist film analysis, Calle’s work can be seen as a reversal of the male gaze. In Hollywood’s system of gendered looking, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents…In herself the woman has not the slightest importance”. 5 In The Address Book, Pierre D. can be seen as occupying this role of ‘heroine’ on which the desires and actions of Calle are projected. He himself is of less importance than of the process of constructing a project around him is. A portrait of Pierre does emerge, but it is still incomplete, filtered through both his connections and through Calle. In this way, her work can also be read as taking what Claire Bishop would term as an ‘antagonistic’ form of relational art, rather than taking on a more utopian, community-forming framework. 6 Perhaps Calle’s work is a sort of antagonistic feminist relational practice, in which men are treated as mere sites of psycho-sexual desire, sites of motivation of action, sites to be analyzed and investigated. Calle’s work also differs from relational aesthetics in the way that the work is presented. Calle presents her work as curated documentation of her process. She documents the social interactions that make up the basis of the work through photographs and writings. In this way, the viewer is a witness to the interactions, rather than an active participant. The Address Book is not presented as an unfolding, open-ended, ephemeral social framework. Instead, the documentation lets viewers witness the interactions after the fact.
Calle’s most recent, in-progress work, Here Lie the Secrets of the Green-Wood Cemetery, sheds the documentary practices of conceptual art and relies more fully on methods of relational aesthetics. The work is an extremely durational participatory work, in which visitors of a historic cemetery in Brooklyn, New York are invited to write a secret down and insert it into a custom obelisk. In this way, the secrets are laid to rest, surrounded by other graves. Calle has promised to tend the grave full of secrets for twenty-five years. Each time the grave fills with secrets and can hold no more, she will exhume the written secrets and burn or ‘cremate’ them. Calle has promised to never divulge any of the secrets she learns. At the opening of the project in April 2017, Calle was present at the gravesite to receive the secrets. Participants were invited to whisper their secrets directly to her, which she would write down and help the participant place into the specially designed slot in the obelisk.
One shift in this work as compared to the Address Book is the method of participation and viewership. The Address Book utilized a transgressive form of participation and viewership as compared to most relational aesthetics work. As discussed earlier, Pierre D. did not consent to being the subject of the work, and was not even aware of his unwilling participation until after the work was published. In terms of viewership, the documentation of the work (which in this case, essentially is the work) was published in a public forum, a newspaper, allowing for viewers to voyueristically participate in the project. In Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-wood Cemetery, Calle is inviting a very specific method of interaction with the work, the writing and interring of secrets. The secrets and the process of interaction are not documented and then presented as the work, but the work is instead experienced through interaction. In fact, documenting the secrets or the process would go against Calle’s promise of secrecy to the participants. The secrets would become public and no longer be secrets if they were to be documented or curated after the process of participation. Taking this one step further, Calle is promising to instead burn the secrets, so that no documentation or traces of them remain. The burning is a rejection of the documentary practices of conceptual art and a move towards an ephemeral model of an unfolding interaction.
Although Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery does move closer to the conventions relational aesthetics than The Address Book, Calle still subverts the expectations of how community plays out in the work. As Claire Bishop describes in Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, “Rather than a one-to-one relationship between work of art and viewer, relational art sets up situations in which viewers are not just addressed as a collective, social entity, but are actually given the wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be.” 6 This work does require participation rather than viewership, requiring an individualized participation where each secret offered is theoretically unique. However, the work still centers on a certain type of one to one relationship between the participant and the artist. As described earlier, Calle was present at the opening of the work, receiving secrets from visitors in person. Even while Calle is not present during the most of the course of the work, the secrets are still essentially passed from the participant to Calle herself, with an undetermined waiting period in the grave. Calle has promised not to share any of the secrets submitted but she has not specified whether or not she will be reading the secrets before she destroys them. In this way, the work does not create a utopian, temporary community in the way that a Rirkrit Teravijana pop-up dinner does, but creates an intimate bond between the participant and the artist. Calle sets up a solitary experience, rather than a collective one. Will the secrets still be considered secrets if the participants know that Calle will hold the knowledge of what they share? Furthermore, Calle seems to reject any utopian or therapeutic notions of this project. In signaturely oblique way Calle talks about her work, she says of the project, “My purpose is the poetry, the work of art, but not the therapy…There may be a therapeutic effect, but that is not my intent. My intent is art.” 7
As seen in the examples of The Address Book and Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of the Green-Wood Cemetery, Sophie Calle borrows conventions of both conceptualism and relational aesthetics but resists categorization. Her work borrows methods from these artistic movements but almost always subverts the conventions. She combines methods and practices to create works that are in unexpected and uniquely hers. She utilizes social interactions to interrogate intimacy, play with gender and power, and enact obsessive social investigations.
1. Sophie Calle. “The Address Book.” New York: Siglio Press, 2012.
2. Robert L. Pincus. “The Prying Eye.” In Sophie Calle: The Reader 28-32. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009.
3. Iwona Blazwick. “Introduction: Talking to Strangers.” In Sophie Calle: The Reader 8-15. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009.
4. Sheena Wagstaff. “Such is my Pleasure, Such is my Will.” In Sophie Calle: The Reader 34-38. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009.
5. Laura Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.
6. Claire Bishop.“Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October, Fall 2014 51-79. MIT Press. Cambridge. October Magazine Limited, 2004.
7. Sarah Maslin Nir. "A Grave of Secrets is Dug in a Brooklyn Cemetery." The New York Times. April 28, 2017. Accessed June 07, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/nyregion/green-wood-cemetery-grave-brooklyn.html?_r=1.