The Investigative Artist / Sophie Calle



The Investigative Artist, Sophie Calle

2.25.2017 | KATY HALLOWELL

Sorting Artist Sophie Calle’s Work Into A Particular Genre Is Virtually Impossible. In A Career That Has Spanned Decades She Has Produced Art That At The Time Of Its Creation Was Unseen And To This Day Is Inimitable...

French native Sophie Calle is a cult figure in the world of conceptual art. Born in Paris, Calle grew up surrounded by contemporary art. Her father, Robert Calle, a well-respected art dealer kept company with the likes of Martial Raysse and Christian Boltanski. Calle has mentioned how influential these artists were in her decision to pursue the arts. It is easy to see the similarities between Boltanski and Calle from the use of multiple mediums to create a body of work. Aside from their both being conceptual artists however, Calle stands entirely on her own being one of the most inimitable artists in modern art—idiosyncratic is the best way to describe her work. She is on the list of required women you need to know of in the arts (according to us).

Calle is a master of mediums: she has created bodies of work using text, photographs, sculpture, installation and performance. Each project is experimental in form, and takes to her advantage the use of multiple mediums. Voyeurism—in many forms—becomes one of the major themes of Calle's work. She follows strangers through the streets of Paris, takes a job as a maid so that she can photograph the guests belongings — she engages passersby. The narrative quality of Calle's work sometimes requires those strangers to be engaged as collaborators.

One of Sophie's first project is known as The Sleepers. She approached strangers on the streets and convinced them to sleep in her bed for an hour while she photographed them. Unusual, yes, but her work's intelligence exists in its juxtapositions. While the act of photographing strangers, inviting them into your home and watching them is strange, the act itself is not. Sleeping is universal, we all do it. Her documentation is what makes it bizarre, but in reality the subject is banal. That juxtaposition gives way to feelings of intimacy and a sense of voyeurism. When she took a job as a housekeeper in a Venice hotel to photograph guests belongings she invaded their space, forced herself into their material lives. But the shoes and the hairbrushes, when separated from their context are in a word, normal. Calle's work exposes the banality of the bizarre—and it's completely beguiling. 


Creating unpredictable work, whether it be in subject, style, or form accomplishes a certain amount of controversy. Her status as a controversial artist began with her project - on which she collaborated with French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard - Suite VénitienneCalle found an address book on the street and started to collect information on its owner by calling some of the telephone numbers. Through these calls she learned of his upcoming trip to Venice and decided to follow him. Calle flew to Venice found his hotel and followed him in disguise for days. She wrote up daily reports and photographed him walking, talking with friends and going about his days all in the vain of a private detective. Needless to say this was an incredible invasion of privacy and the address book owner, a documentary filmmaker, ended up seeing these photographs in a French newspaper. The man, Pierre Baudry, ended up threatening to sue and release nude photos he found of Calle. Not your average artist/subject interaction.

There is an obsessive quality to Calle's work and a complete fearlessness. She could stage these subjects, check into hotels and scatter objects to create the sense of it being in use. But she didn't, she put herself at risk making herself just as vulnerable as her subjects. Her counterparts in these works are unpredictable, uncontrolled, and it leaves the results completely out of her control. 

The greatest example of this is - perhaps her most well known work - Take Care of Yourself. The project began with a breakup letter Calle received. Instead of hiding the letter away or tossing it out she made something of it. Calle engaged dozens of women of all ages and professions - ballerinas, clowns, editors and others - to take the letter and change it, comment on it, do what they wished. An example is the editors (whose letter is pictured below) letter that is covered in markings regarding grammar, sentence structure and word choice. The series explores perspective and personality. Calle would then photograph the collaborator reading. The book is the epitome of multi-media. Opera singers and videographers responses are catalogued on a CD in the book (make sure you have a disk drive in your house, it's worth checking out). Calle's willingness to expose herself emotionally inspires that strength in others. She is a strong woman who embraces that which others might fear or shy away from. 

Calle is engaging because she's different. In the modern art world where women are still grossly underrepresented she stands out and she stands strong. Her work is confident and the subjects are tempting. OuLiPo a 1960's constraint method used in literature has had a significant influence in her work and is what gives it that sense of being almost interactive. Raymond Queneau one of the leaders of the OuLiPo group worked to create games that would inspire odd and original work like trying to write only using words with the letter 'p' in them. Their belief is that this would force unique thinking and serve as a catalyst for creation. 

Her work is shown occasionally in New York City at Paula Cooper Gallery. In New Orleans, Calle installed her most recent work True Stories into a historic home to look as though she'd been inhabiting the space for years. However, for more frequent exhibitions a trip to France will need to be part of your plan. 

CultureKaty HallowellComment