by Max Blue
Can a picture really speak a thousand words? It’s a tired adage, time and again proven wrong by great writers, then reinstated by great photographers. But if there is one constant winner in this back and forth, it is the marriage of text and image, where the two are combined to produce a narrative greater than the sum of the parts. For a shining example, look no further than Sophie Calle.
The French conceptual artist has spent a long career exploring the relationship between text and image. In her earliest work, Suite Venitienne, Calle stalked one man from Paris to Venice, photographing him and writing about the process and experience along the way. In Paul Auster’s 1992 novel Leviathan, Calle served as the inspiration for the character of Maria, a performance artist and photographer. In the novel, Auster attributes several of Calle’s works to Maria, as well as inventing additional pieces. Following the novel’s publication, Calle created Double Game, an artist’s book in which she carried out the performances Auster invented. In 2017, Fort Mason Center in San Francisco hosted a 10-year survey of Calle’s recent work (titled Missing) organized by local curatorial group Ars Citizen. For the centerpiece of that exhibition, Take Care of Yourself (2004-2007), Calle engaged 107 women to interpret a break-up letter that she received via email.
Because finds the artist examining her own process and mind, questioning her motives and those of everyone else. The show features 17 carefully composed color pigment prints made in 2018 from careful composition to cell-phone snapshots to film stills, each covered by a velvet curtain with a short poem
embroidered onto it. Most of the poems start with the word “Because” and attempt to explain the photo underneath, giving viewers an understanding of the artist’s state of mind when she made the pictures. While this approach threatens to undermine or coerce reactions, Calle skirts that pitfall by keeping the text sufficiently vague, encouraging viewers to assess the two aspects of each piece in light of their own experience, first by reading the text and then lifting the curtain to view the image beneath.
Here, as before, Calle displays a well-honed sense of the absurd in examining the themes of love, death, memory and absence that have defined her career. Christ, a photograph of a sculpture of Jesus positioned on all fours with a come-hither look, is prefaced with the words: “Because I burst out laughing when I discover him as I turn an aisle in the church.”
Without Child, a photo of a bare-breasted Calle nursing a baby, comes with the following preface: “Because I found a seven-word definition of me online: ‘Sophie Calle artist without child by choice.’ Out of sheer mischief, since one happens to be around.” Calle, as always, remains acutely aware of the image she projects and how that image is treated by the media. Mother-Father shows an ornately carved headstone marked “mother,” overshadowing a diminutive grave marked “father.” Why? “Because revenge is a dish served cold,” Calle explains on the curtain. Which is somewhat ironic, since the artist herself has purchased two gravesites, neither of which are in her home country of France.
Of David she writes in the first line of the curtain, “David is dead.” Then, below: “Because I have no words to describe his world.” The photo shows a child’s stuffed rabbit on a couch. The heartbreaking image, paired with the announcement of the boy’s death, evokes a sense of loss difficult to summarize, but by acknowledging that she cannot find the right words, Calle underscores the futility of trying. Even when language fails her, Calle uses that failure to advance the work.
She’s Dead exerts an equally profound impact. Here, Calle returns to her mother’s death, the subject of her 2007 body of work, Rachel Monique. The embroidered curtain tells us, “The film is Roberto Rosellini’s Open City” and that one of the actors pictured is Calle’s stepfather, “the love of my mother’s life.” Beneath, Calle
adds, “Because when I watch this part of the movie […], I hear my stepfather telling me my mother has died.” The photo beneath is a film still. In it, we see a man lying on a couch with another beside him in an armchair, rolling a cigarette. The subtitle reads: “Elle est morte,” with an engraving on the glass frame that translates.
In the final piece, The Bed, Calle poses a question: “Because I’ve always wondered who gets custody of it after a divorce? The one who’s suffering? Because I’m moving out of a house I’ve occupied for 50 years […] because it is the only thing I leave behind.” Expecting to see a child, perhaps, or a beloved pet, we are instead confronted with the stark image of an empty bed. The feeling imparted is of gut-wrenching loss, but most importantly, it leaves us confronting the question faced by the artist herself: what comes next?
The last room in the gallery contains selections from Fraenkel’s collection, curated by Calle. Here, she focuses on relationships, each photo exhibiting a different odd couple, from Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Untitled (1969-72) – showing a man and woman in dime-store monster masks leaning against a beat-up roadster – to Garry Winogrand’s, Central Park Zoo (1967), in which an interracial couple carry two fully dressed monkeys like babes-in-arms. These pictures restate Calle’s penchant for the idiosyncratic, ending this otherwise weighty exhibition on a somewhat lighter note.
Great art often reflects its own genesis, and so it is with Because. It finds Calle four decades into her career, still wrestling the question of what it means to combine the abstractions of language with the absolutes of photography. By positing answers that invite further queries, Calle reminds us that wonder is far more generative than certainty.
# # #
Sophie Calle: “Because” @ Fraenkel Gallery through March 21, 2020.
About the author:
Northern California native Max Blue is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America, among others.