Conceptual artist Sophie Calle is a French photographer, installation artist, and writer who combines texts, photographs, and videos with a voyeuristic edge to create narrative art. She is known for her book art: photographic sequences that are juxtaposed with texts describing these photos and are often contrasted with or different from her own personal content. The combination of portraiture and the public exposure of private experiences – hers and others – are hallmarks of her work.
Calle was born in Paris and graduated from secondary school but refused to attend university or even art school. Instead she spent seven years traveling around the world. She returned to Paris in 1979 still not knowing what she wanted to do with her life. Her parents were supportive of her. A year after her return she invited friends and strangers to sleep in her bed. She documented their stay with her photographs and notes, and this became her first major project, “The Sleepers” series.
Like a voyeur, Calle once worked as a temporary chambermaid in a Venetian hotel for three weeks. She was assigned twelve bedrooms where she took pictures of the personal belongings of unsuspecting guests after they left their rooms. She also eavesdropped on their conversations and imagined how they lived. This resulted in her 1981 photography series “L’Hotel,” which was finally published in English.
Two antecedents of this work are the books “Suite Venitienne” (1981) and “The Address Book” (1983). In the first, Calle followed a man from Paris to Venice where she trailed him for more than a week. In the second, she photocopied an address book she found on a Paris street and interviewed the people, listed in the book, about the book’s owner.
In later works, she had direct encounters with people. Her 1986 “The Blind” resulted from her interviews of people who were born blind. She asked them to describe their ideas of beauty. She wrote down their thoughts placing their descriptions next to a black and white portrait of each one of them along with her own color photograph of her interpretation of their words.
In 1992, she collaborated with her then boyfriend for a video, “Double Blind,” made during a road trip they took traveling across the United States. Each recorded different views of the landscape and photos of one another as well as their marriage in a drive-through chapel in Las Vegas. Woven together was a montage of stills and video, which became a jumbled text of autobiography mixed with romantic fantasy. The viewer could never tell which one of them was telling the truth. The marriage did not last.
Another example of her use of her own personal life is her video of her mother when dying. For three months Calle was by her mother’s side. Her “Couldn’t Capture Death” was the video of her mother’s last moments of life – the last eleven minutes – before she died in 2006. This work was presented in the the 2007 Venice Biennale as a beautiful meditation on grief, love, loss, and remembrance of her mother.
After her mother died, her cat died, and a year after she lost her pet, her father died. His death devastated her since he always took care of her and was the first person she showed her art to. She became ill, had a heart attack, and had no ideas for a year. It was as if she were paralyzed; she did nothing. And then art came back to her. Art continued to be a way to be with her father and to keep her parents alive with her.
In 2018, her audio work “Souris Calle” had forty musicians, including Bono and Pharrell Williams, composing musical pieces in homage to her cat who died earlier.
Her work has been shown in retrospectives at Whitechapel Gallery, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the high Museum of Art. Now her work will be exhibited at the Centre Pompidou Malaga, Spain through April 22, 2022 and at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Her work is in the public collections of more than two dozen major museums in the United States, France, England, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and the Netherlands.