Artist Sophie Calle shares her views on privacy

Sophie Calle turns the mundane and improper into an art form

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2014, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2014, 10:48pm

Sophie Calle has no religious belief at all, nor any philosophy of life. She lives alone, has no children and doesn't have to feed anyone since her "love" - her cat for 18 years - died earlier this year. "If I want to stay in bed for one week, I can stay in bed for one week," she says at her solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin's Hong Kong gallery.

That, by the way, is about as personal as it gets for the pre-eminent French conceptual artist. Calle describes herself as being "super sentimental but very cold at the same time: sentimental distant", and her work reflects that.

In the project Exquisite Pain (2003), Calle documented a break-up she suffered two decades earlier. During her three-month recovery period, she recounted her grief to 99 strangers and collected the most painful memory from each.

Making that work was therapeutic for her, though she points out, "it's not the motive, it's the cherry on the cake".

The project has had a similar effect on many others, including the filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who tried to arrange a collaboration with her while planning an English-language breakup movie, which became 2007's My Blueberry Nights.

"I don't do it for this, but I've received a lot of letters from women saying that they used my book during difficult times," says Calle.

Suite Vénitienne (detail, 1980) © CALLE/ADAGP, Paris & Sack, Seoul, 2014 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. So I decided to follow him.


While nominally known as a photographer, Calle has no great skill with a camera; she doesn't even carry one around. As a writer, she either enlists the help of literary friends or, when she goes for it, she may require six months to come up with 10 lines of text. "If I have one good idea in a year I'm already thankful enough," she says, briefly putting her hands together.

Calle intrigued the international art circle with projects that involved her doing very mundane, if slightly improper, things. For her first project, Suite Vénitienne (1980), the artist followed a man she barely knew to Venice, called hundreds of hotels to locate him, before spending days stalking him around the city and secretly taking photos of him.

"I would never photograph somebody begging in the street. I would be too shy," she says. "But if my project is to photograph everyone begging, then I would just do it because I don't have to wonder. I can stop it whenever I want because it's my own rule."

But sometimes, Calle doesn't stop. After getting hold of some ATM video footage from an American bank in 1988, the artist struggled to find the right words to complement the images. The 16-year process of shaping this project is now on view at Galerie Perrotin, as a photo installation simply titled Cash Machine, and an accompanying short film, Unfinished.


Care of Yourself (2007), at the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennale © CALLE/ADAGP, Paris & Sack, Seoul, 2014 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin; Arndt & Partner, Berlin/Zurich; Paula Cooper Gallery, NY; Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo

I received an email telling me it was over. I didn’t know how to respond. It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me. It ended with the words, ‘Take care of yourself’. And so I did. I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers), chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret the letter. To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me. It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way to taking care of myself.


"What do you do to obey your own style? I was trapped by it," says Calle of her practice of adding text to her photos. Apart from her well-documented claim that she took up the format aged 26 to "seduce her father" - an art-collecting doctor with an affinity for photographs with accompanying text, such as those by Duane Michals - Calle offers another rationale.

"I think I also took it from the nature of my work. If I was only doing photos, it was not clear what I was doing. And if I was just writing, it was not meant to be on the wall. So I think it came naturally, as a necessity. The kind of ideas I have request that I tell the story of the idea, and take photos to show what's happening."

When I remind her that the artist Daniel Buren - who curated her "Take Care of Yourself" exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale - used to describe her works as "open books on the wall", she giggles. "Yeah, [but] I think I've changed," says the artist, who has in fact published many of her projects as books. "Maybe I heard the critique."

Calle cites the video installation Voir la mer (2011), also at Galerie Perrotin, as a break from the habit. The work documents the reactions of several Istanbul residents who were given the chance to see the sea for the very first time. It is, she claims, one of only three projects in which she has used video, the other two being the short film Unfinished and "Take Care of Yourself", for which Calle forwarded a break-up email she had received to 107 women of different occupations to have them analyse and respond to it.


Exquisite Pain (1984/99) © CALLE/ADAGP, Paris & Sack, Seoul, 2014 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

In 1984, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded me a grant for a three-month scholarship to Japan. I left on October 25, not suspecting that this date would mark the beginning of a 92 day countdown to the end of a love affair. Nothing extraordinary — but to me, at the time, it was the unhappiest moment in my life, and one for which I blamed the trip. I got back to France on January 28, 1985. From that moment on, whenever people asked me about the trip I chose to skip the Far East bit and tell them about my suffering instead. In turn, I started asking both friends and chance encounters: ‘When did you suffer most?’ I decided to continue such exchanges until I had got over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition. The method proved radically effective. In three months I had cured myself. Yet, while the exorcism had worked, I still feared a possible relapse, I decided not to exploit this experiment artistically. By the time I returned to it, 15 years had passed.


But the artist has at least forgotten No Sex Last Night (1996), the 76-minute film she made with then-husband Greg Shephard on a miserable road trip across America. It is another reminder that Calle couldn't make a happy artwork if she tried. "If my husband had loved me, there would not be a movie - it would be super boring," she says.

"The movie was made about a constant disaster. Imagine a film in which everything is fine: the car works well, the countryside is nice, they love each other and they don't fight. Would you stay for 30 minutes?" She laughs. "I would say a link between my works is absence: my mother dies, a man goes, a painting is stolen, an address book is without its owner."

The last refers to her most controversial work to date, The Address Book (1983). Calle found an address book on a street in Paris, made a copy of it, rang all the numbers to piece together a portrait of the owner (the documentary filmmaker Pierre Baudry, who threatened to sue her), and published the results in a newspaper.


Voir la mer (detail, 2011) © Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris & Sack, Seoul, 2014 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

I went to Istanbul, a city surrounded by water, I met people who had never seen the sea. I filmed their first time.


"I feel that it was maybe the most problematic work I've done. It's the one where I hurt someone. I think maybe I should not have done it but, at the same time, I really like the work. The excitement is stronger than the guilt. I would do it again - with the same doubts. But I would do it again."

The Address Book is not the only case of Calle's violation of other people's privacy. For The Hotel series (1981-83), she took a job as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel and photographed the guests' possessions in their rooms. Doesn't she see an issue here?

"It's not my ... " she pauses. "If I decide to show the work on the wall, it means I have accepted the work. So then I'm not going to discuss it. If I think it's problematic, I don't do it and I don't show it."

How do the internet and reality TV today compare to what she does? "They're much worse than me."

Still, does it make her over-sharing any more appropriate? Calle has even filmed her mother's final moments, shown it as a life-sized video projection, with a marathon reading of her diaries.


Hotel Room 43, February 28 (1981-1983) ©Adagp, Paris & Sack, Seoul, 2014 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

On Monday, February 16, 1981I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned 12 bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6 the job came to an end.


"I don't think what I share is private," she counters. "My mother is just a lady who's dying. She doesn't reveal anything [in the video]. If people cry while watching my mother, they don't cry for my mother, they cry for their own mother, or friend, or wife or whatever."

Calle insists that she hasn't revealed who she is through her art. "Ninety-nine per cent of the things that happen in my life, I don't turn them into artworks."

That probably explains why Calle doesn't have a blog, Facebook account or any type of social media presence, including, "I don't know, with the images - I don't know how to call it". Does she mean Instagram? "Instagram? I don't even know how you do it. I'm really old."

She turned 61 in October. Calle hasn't noticed any change in her mentality as an artist, but she has noticed things about herself. "My hair is not as good, or my skin. Now, when I spend a night in a bar and come home in the morning, it takes me a week to recover; before it would take me half a day." She laughs. "So, this I've noticed, big change. I like to travel business class now; before, I didn't care."

And how does the artist want to be known by the public? "As a woman alive," she says, smiling brightly.


Sophie Calle, Galerie Perrotin, 17/F, 50 Connaught Road Central, Tuesday-Saturday 11am-7pm. Ends January 10. Inquiries: 3758 2180