Sophie Calle: Road Rage, Malaise, and Lost Virginity

Jilted lover, grieving daughter, or documentarian of the disadvantaged, Sophie Calle works with emotionally charged subjects.

Voic la mer, 2011 (© Sophie Calle)

Men who decide to get involved with the Parisian conceptual artist Sophie Calle — to be her lover, boyfriend, or husband — know they might become part of Calle’s over-the-top artwork. And they get involved anyway.

They do so despite a film like No Sex Last Night, the 1992 documentary that’s one of the most damning portraits ever made of an unfulfilling relationship. The movie has Calle and a former art dealer named Greg Shephard crisscrossing the United States in a big Cadillac that constantly breaks down — just like Calle’s relationship with Shephard, who comes across as a vacuous pretty-boy physically repulsed by Calle. (The title references their lack of coitus.) He lies about his ambivalent feelings even as he and Calle head toward a promised wedding in Las Vegas. Calle made the film with Shephard, whose video diary airs such statements as, “She’s so judgmental.”  

That brings us to Calle’s new series of San Francisco exhibits called “Missing,” which includes the project Take Care of Yourself, an audacious anatomy of Calle’s breakup with a French lover who wrote her a good-bye letter that explains his “terrible feeling of anxiety” about needing to see other women and reject Calle’s love. The letter, which opens with the salutation “Sophie” — not “Dear Sophie” or “Mon amour” or anything tender — includes the exclamation, “I can never become your friend,” before finishing with the four words that title the project: “Take care of yourself.”

To interpret the prose — to pick it apart word by word, and to analyze her former lover’s character and his being — Calle, now 63 and one of France’s most acclaimed artists, commissioned more than 100 women (and some girls) to create their own stand-alone guide to the breakup. The invitees include musicians such as Laurie Anderson, actresses, writers, lawyers, a diplomat, a philosopher, a psychiatrist, a criminologist, a sexologist, an anthropologist, a police captain, a prison social worker, an ad exec, a headhunter, a curator, a dancer, a nursery-school teacher — and even a rifle shooter, a clairvoyant, and a clown. All of them use their chosen expertise to excoriate (and occasionally laud or empathize with) the man who once shared Calle’s bed. All of them are photographed or filmed with the letter — holding it, hiding behind it, or addressing it with their songs, dances, or other interpretive acts.

Dark humor runs throughout. The police captain’s written interpretation posits that Calle’s ex exhibited a “malaise” that is “characteristic of an attitude that is widespread among French males: refusal to commit and sexual vagrancy.” In another written opinion, the criminologist calls Calle’s former lover a “manipulator” who “manages to exonerate himself for any act of his that might be perceived as negative, to make his interlocutor feel guilty and position himself as a victim. … He seems incapable of dealing with conflict. … He can look you in the eye and lie. … He is an intelligent cultivated man. … To be avoided at all costs.”

“It is sad,” a schoolgirl named Ambre writes, while a teenager writes on her phone that, “He thinks he’s cool.”

Calle also participates in the bludgeoning, in a filmed session with a family mediator during which Calle laments her former lover’s lack of “generosity” and the “fear” she lived with during their commingling. Calle knew that the man she calls “X” was involved with other women. She enmeshed herself into his life, anyway.

Does Calle have a habit of pursuing men who she knows are somehow unavailable? Does she exhibit some of the same traits (like narcissism) that her friends have accused “X” of exhibiting?

“Yes” and “maybe.” But Calle’s art doesn’t only revolve around her own life, and “Missing” — curated by the organization Ars Citizen and spread across different buildings at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture — includes three other projects that are vintage Calle. In Voir la mer (See the Sea), Calle took video images of Turkish citizens in Istanbul — children, the elderly, families — visiting the Black Sea for the first time. We see them staring at the waves, and then staring at Calle’s camera with looks of pleasure or calm or something indescribable. No words are ever said against the sight and sound of splashing seawater. The videos are moving and poetic, and beg the question: Why haven’t the older of Calle’s subjects ever seen salt water if they live in Istanbul, which is surrounded by water — including the Black Sea?

Apparently, many of the people in Voir la mer grew up in central Turkey and moved to Istanbul relatively recently. Also, about 15 million people live in Istanbul, and many of them live hectic and economically disadvantaged lives. They may not have the time or the resources to go to the city’s edges and spend time by the water. But Calle invited them to do just that. And they accepted. Voir la mer occupies Fort Mason’s Firehouse, which is set against San Francisco Bay and its own waves, giving it an atmosphere that complements the project’s 2011 origins.

In the same building is Calle’s La Dernière Image (The Last Image), which is also set in Istanbul. For it, Calle interviewed and photographed formerly sighted people who’ve gone blind. Their stories are raw, tragic, and hopeful as they describe the last thing they remember seeing. A 39-year-old taxi driver details the final moments of a road-rage incident, in which a thuggish man he’d honked at blocks the road, gets out of his car, grabs the taxi driver’s head, and shoots him through the left eye with a bullet that also pierces his right eye. Since then, the taxi driver has forgotten the faces of his own children and his wife — but not that of his shooter. “Maybe one day this image will disappear just like the others,” he writes, in words accompanying his photos by Calle, “but it will never be replaced.”

Calle has a knack for getting strangers and loved ones to open up about sensitive subjects, including death. When her mother, Monique Sindler, was dying in 2006, Calle set up a camera to record her final moments — to the delight of her mom, who was happy to finally be featured in one of daughter’s projects. In Rachel Monique, which is situated in Fort Mason’s chapel, we see a video of Calle’s mom on her deathbed, and we learn that she told Calle in her last breaths, “Ne vous faites pas de souci” (“Do not worry”). At Fort Mason’s chapel, visitors encounter books, papers, and other accouterments that symbolize Monique Sindler’s life and death, including a stuffed giraffe of the exact kind that Calle bought for her Paris home after her mother’s passing. Calle named the animal “Monique.” “She looks at me from on high with sadness and irony,” Calle told an interviewer, “just like my mother did.”

Calle has turned Fort Mason’s chapel into a wake in which her mom’s character — her vanity, her quirks, her foibles, and her sayings — speak to visitors in the present, as if she were still alive. On a wall there is this anecdote that Calle experienced over and over again: “Every time my mother passed by the Bristol Hotel she stopped, crossed herself, and told us to shut up. ‘Silence,’ she said, ‘This is where I lost my virginity.’ ”

That same anecdote, repurposed in a wooden tableau, shows up at FraenkelLAB, in its parallel exhibit, “Sophie Calle: My mother, my cat, my father, in that order.” Death is an undercurrent of the exhibit — to be joked about, cried over, and celebrated. In the 2012 documentary Sans Titre (Untitled), Calle is filmed buying a gravesite in Bolinas, where she first learned to photograph in the 1970s. We see her slip into a casket for size, the lid closing in on her. “It’s not that claustrophobic,” she laughs.

That’s Sophie Calle. Turn the camera on. Be raw. See what happens. Voilà. “Missing” is the largest Sophie Calle exhibit ever presented in the United States, and it’s a kind of “greatest hits.” Take Care of

Yourself debuted at the French Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, but it’s as fresh today as it was 10 years ago. There are very few artists who could pull off these exhibits with such verve, pathos, and humor — but one of them is Sophie Calle.

“I’m older, but I still go from investigating about myself to using other people’s stories — this back-and-forth,” Calle told me two years ago. “I keep playing with both directions. What has changed, maybe, is that I have a little more money to fabricate things.”

She meant “fabricate” not as in “lie,” but as in “create strange exhibits that require a big personal investment.” The combined works at Fort Mason and FraenkelLAB are an opera of the senses, done with words, images, and multiple-screen videos that play with time and memory, where the past has a powerful pull that is always trying to drag people down. Don’t let it, Calle says. Or at least, try not to.

“It’s done me a lot of good,” she says in the exhibit about the breakup letter she received from X. “I have taken care of myself.”

“Missing”
Through Aug. 20 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture,
2 Marina Boulevard. Free, although tickets are required; 415-345-7500 or
fortmason.org

“Sophie Calle: My mother, my cat, my father, in that order”
Through Aug. 26 at FraenkelLAB,
1632 Market St. Free; 415-981-2661 or
fraenkelgallery.com

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