Invisible Walls

"Sophie Calle: Public Places -- Private Spaces"

By definition, a wall is a solid structure made of bricks, stones, or wood designed to separate and delineate, to keep someone or something out (or in). Think Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. But in the Orthodox Jewish community, a wall need not be so literal, or so divisive. An eruv, for example, is a symbolic boundary -- made of string or wire or some other neutral barrier -- planned not to segregate but rather to transform a public space into a private one. The area partitioned off by an eruv acts as an extension of the home, allowing observant Jews to complete daily tasks without breaking the religious law that forbids them from carrying things outside the home on the Sabbath. This ancient concept was the subject of a legislative battle last year, when Orthodox Jews wanted to erect an eruv around Palo Alto, touching off heated debates over separation of church and state and religious tolerance.

Sophie Calle, the French conceptual artist, has made a career out of such controversy, consciously treading the line between the personal and the public. Her current installation, "Sophie Calle: Public Places -- Private Spaces," is inspired by the Jerusalem eruv. For this work, Calle interviewed 14 residents of Jerusalem, both Israelis and Palestinians, and asked them to take her to a public place in the city they considered private. The result is a collection of photographs, accompanied by Calle's writing and transcriptions of the interviews, of rather commonplace sites -- a wall, a bench, an alleyway, or a street. Although there is nothing extraordinary about the locations themselves, they acquire significance and grandeur when filtered through the lens of personal experience. The poignant stories of the subjects transform an open, universal space into a closed, individual one: The bench becomes one woman's romantic fantasy, when she recalls the man who sat silently admiring her from afar, and a street where a little girl was hit by a bus becomes another woman's recurrent nightmare. Although this exhibit differs from Calle's trademark autobiographical pieces in form, it is typical in that it defies the separation of the private realm from the public domain. As with most of her projects, Calle herself is never too far removed. By leaving the cultural identities of her subjects ambiguous -- it is unclear who is Israeli and who is Palestinian -- she subtly imbues the collection with her own opinions on the Middle East conflict.

Calle's art, which has been compared to journalism and detective work, chips away at the walls between artist and subject, truth and fiction. Bordering on voyeurism, her trademark techniques are adopting disguises, following strangers, and role-playing. In "The Hotel," for example, she masqueraded as a Venetian chambermaid, pilfering through the rooms of unsuspecting guests, reading their journals, rummaging through their handbags, and yes, their garbage, to piece together a portrait of the person from the "clues" she discovered. A storyteller as well as a visual artist, Calle's work functions as a narrative, telling unfinished stories, breaking down the wall between the art and the viewer.

Some walls are not made to be broken. Sophie Calle, eruv (detail) 1996.
Ian Reeves
Some walls are not made to be broken. Sophie Calle, eruv (detail) 1996.

Details

Thursday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free; call 591-8801. The exhibit is on display through June 28 at the Jewish Museum San Francisco, 121 Steuart (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$4; call 591-8800.
San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones), S. F.

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