This essay examines the interplay between text and image within Sophie Calle’s work and analyses how the careful manipulation of both operate within her work. Calle’s controlled language and imagery evoke a strong emotional response comparable to that of theatre or literature (Literary Hub, 2015) attributed to her enigmatic co-mingling of fact and fiction. Due to the equivocal nature of Calle’s work and the various dichotomies within both her practice and finished pieces, this exploration is not intended to provide a total comprehension of her work. Instead it hypothesises that there are three main identifiable themes which can be examined and related to aspects of Calle’s work as a way of understanding the differing effects of her combination of text and image. The themes of interpretation, narrative and chance have been identified to be of considerable importance in understanding Calle’s work. Initially these three themes will be related to theory, allowing a broader understanding as to the background of her thought. Consequently, the themes will then be identified within specific pieces. The works Suite Venitienne, Unfinished and Take Care of Yourself have been selected for comparison as they all employ text and image in a manner of different ways, allowing for a broad range of discussion and subsequent analysis. In recognising that from conception to realisation there is no one way in which she works, it is intended that through explicating and comparing the effect of these themes between pieces, it will be possible to determine ways of partially understanding the complexity of her work.
Arguably France’s most celebrated conceptual artist, Sophie Calle is best known for her photographic and narrative body of work, however she is also a film maker, writer and appears as a figure in a novel. Highly autobiographical in nature, her work extends through various disciplines and within her practice she adopts multiple identities as character, performer and author, therefore it can be said that there is no one way in which she works. Despite this, she has an unmistakeable style comprising a contrived situation narrated through a text and images, within which she creates rules to play games that allow an exploration of the author notion (Baudrillard, 2009). Calle’s work hangs between fact and fiction, emphasised through the thriller-like manner in which she scripts the language recording the various events. This dichotomy between fact and fiction is furthered through the apparent lack of ending to her projects, fostering the idea that these situations may indeed be real. Rooted in Surrealist ideas, Calle’s practice thematically explores this borderline reality coupled with notions of the onlooker, the dreamer and the dreamed (Baudrillard, 2009). Additionally, the Surrealist preoccupation with chance is present throughout her work as Calle has commented, ‘I like being in control and I like losing control,’ (Calle and Macel, 2003) seen through the sequences of unpredictable events that result from various concocted situations. Through the nature of ‘temporarily bringing strangers into the realms of intimacy’ (Baudrillard, 2009) the aleatoric nature of her work allows the spontaneous, unpredictable and irrational.
Plurality of meaning plays a large role within the work of Sophie Calle and therefore interpretation becomes an important theme. It is understood in relation to the theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who states that, ‘we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’ (Baudrillard, 1994). Thus Baudrillard theorises that a singular meaning is never possible, inferring that signification and meaning are both only understandable by means of the interrelation of particular words or signs (Redhead, 2008). From this standing Baudrillard theorises that human society is predominantly based upon a self referring system. He portrays society as becoming engulfed in a continual search for meaning or a total understanding of the world, one which will always be unattainable and stay consistently elusive. Baudrillard’s theoretical writings had considerable influence on artists and the art world, providing alternative ways of thinking which encouraged viewers to challenge the accepted system of representation as ‘everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us’ (Toffoletti, 2010). Within Calle’s work, this theory can be seen through its equivocal nature as there is never a total meaning nor one way in which it is to be understood.
Due to the highly autobiographical manner of Calle’s work, the theme of narrative is intrinsically linked with her practice through the adoption of multiple identities. She situates her work in a territory likened to that of film and literature, which for a long time had exclusively assumed the narrative principle. Taking the theme of narrative to extremes, she has no fixed identity and does not simply exhibit herself but also often gets others to narrate her projects. The late 1960s announced the Death of the Author in a seminal essay by Roland Barthes, highlighting the importance of the role of the reader to a text and how the work becomes subjective based upon an individual’s reading. (Barthes, 1997) The oeuvre of Sophie Calle can be seen as a rejection of Barthes’ Death of the Author, putting the author notion back at the centre of the artist’s method. Her factual/ fictional narratives accompanied with photographs have a constant presence throughout her practice, redefining the notion of author and even of fiction itself through her constant overlapping of reality and the imagined. Commenting on this strong narrative of reality and constructed fiction, Calle says ‘I go from investigating about myself to using other people’s stories – back and forth, I keep playing in both directions’ (Calle and Macel, 2003) suggesting that the differentiation between the two is immeasurable.
The aleatoric nature of Calle’s work is derived from the Surrealist movement. In order to be free from the constraints of the rational world, the Surrealists rejected reason and planning, instead depending on chance to express the creativity of the unconscious mind. For the Surrealists, the concept of opening up the subconscious made it possible to think differently, allowing them to undermine and be analytical of the advanced civilisation of which they were criticising (Klingsöhr-Leroy and Grosenick, 2004). The process through which the work was created and the ideas which it conveyed were more important than the finished article. For Calle, embracing the unknown at times offers the solution as to how to progress her work, seen through her documented surveillance within which she notes movement and evaluates her emotions as she follows people chosen at random (Calle and Macel, 2003). Additionally Calle embraces the anti-bourgeois ethos of the Surrealists through inverting the notion of public and private, her art emanating from people’s willing and unwilling participation which at times is a direct violation of privacy.
Suite Vénitienne, 1979. Black and white photographs accompanied by text.
For Calle this project started out of a lack of desire, originally a time passing exercise which quickly turned into an obsession. Initially following people at random for short periods of time, it developed into a carefully constructed surveillance operation, complete with detailed notes and photographs. Speaking in an interview, Calle states, ‘I followed a man, but I lost him very quickly, and then I saw him again in the evening. I thought it was a sign. So that’s how it started’ (Baker, 2015). Subsequently she followed Henri B to Venice with the resulting book, Suite Vénitienne, first published in 1979. Calle meticulously documents her attempts to follow her subject, with photographs emphasising the thriller-esque narrative of her mission which show the back of a man travelling through the winding Venetian streets. To accompany the photographs Calle documents her surveillance, noting and evaluating her thoughts and feelings and at times reminding herself that although she feels emotionally attached to him, it is his elusive nature to which she is attracted (Calle et al., 1999). The combination of text and image in Suite Vénitienne almost follows an anthropological system, crossing the boundaries between art and other disciplines. This allows her work to transcend the gallery, bringing an outside-ness which perhaps comprises a considerable aspect of its appeal. This multi-disciplinary approach adds to the artifice created within her work, as it is almost impossible to decipher which elements are fact and which are fictional.
At times her means of following are methodical yet at others they become more arbitrary. This varied approach furthers the idea that chance plays a large part in Calle’s work, as instead of being predictable and calculated, there is room for the element of surprise. For Calle, ‘real lives can be plundered for art’ (Baker, 2015) and the camera becomes an instrument of surveillance to transgress the boundaries between public and private. The protective distance offered by the lens allows the detachment of the observer in an enigmatic reversal of perspective which can be linked to Surrealism. There is an element of escapism within the manner in which Calle follows others and perhaps at times it could be described as seductive, although of herself and the reader into the construct of the game. In taking charge of other’s lives, even for limited time, Calle finds herself released from her own. Calle’s plain and descriptive narratives which accompany the photographs narrate both Henri B’s and her own movements, allowing the reader to become the follower. The whole work, although seemingly random, is carefully curated so that the performance and narrative become inseparable.
Unfinished, 2003, film with accompanied images.
The significance of image and text within the work of Sophie Calle is perhaps most prevalent in Unfinished, however it is unique as it is the lack of text which emphasises its importance. Unfinished is part of a larger series entitled Cash Machine, which the artist began in 1991. After being invited by an American bank to create a project, Calle was provided access to surveillance footage taken of clients with hidden cameras whilst they were using cash machines. Calle is interested in the representation of a lack of trust displayed through the films, the portraits they contained and the intermittent crime documented, however cannot figure out what to do with them. (Baudrillard, 2009) This hesitancy was the beginning of a 15 year long investigation. In 2003 she concludes the project, making a video about each of the failures encountered and to show the original photographs of the cash machine’s users in an exhibition. In this instance her documentation of the research and examination in order to make the commissioned piece of art becomes the art, in Calle’s words ‘delineating the anatomy of this failure in a movie titled Unfinished and, at last, free (herself) of these images.’ (Art Practical, 2015) The struggle for narrative within Unfinished, illustrates its importance as a tool within Calle’s practice. Perhaps it is because the narrative is predetermined that she struggles to assume authorship. Calle’s selection of images becomes the central narrative of the ultimately unresolved investigation into behaviour, emotion and the creative process. However, despite being unresolved the piece is recognisably Calle in the notion of inverting public and private through revealing the almost intimate encounters between man and machine. Similarly to Suite Vénitienne, Calle plays with the boundaries between public and private, the unwillingness of participants is a concurrent theme throughout her work, exploring notions of the post modernist transgression, bringing an ethical dimension into her work.
Take Care of Yourself, 2007. 107 Interpretations of a text
The most autobiographical of Calle’s work is Take Care of Yourself. Taking a former lover as its muse, on receiving an email ending their relationship she asks for professional assistance, taking his suggestion that she should take care of herself literally. The letter is transformed into a work of conceptual art via processes of translation and transposition as Calle commissioned 107 female professionals to interpret the letter according to their profession. In an almost Derrida – like manner, the ‘original’ letter, if ever existing, goes missing in the exhibition and becomes lost amidst the numerous interpretations resulting in the letter becoming interpreted to death, perhaps like art. (Calle, 2008) Some analyses are literary, psychological and legal whilst others are creative, transforming the letter into multiple works of art. The same meticulous approach can be seen throughout all of the examined works, as Calle states in an interview, ’the rules of the game are always very strict’ (Interview Magazine, 2016). Due to the language requirements of the Venice Biennale, the narrative style of Take Care of Yourself differs in that text assumes a secondary role. Instead the responses become nonverbal, meaning translated into performance and encompass moving image and sounds on printed matter. Similar to Suite Vénitienne it overtly blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, with the truthfulness of the breakup unclear. Calle herself addresses this in an interview, ‘I don’t care about truth; I care about art and style and writing and occupying the wall. If I am asked, I say it is all true—I am not able to invent. Afterwards it is other people’s problem, not mine, if truth or fiction is a necessary criteria for them’ (Interview Magazine, 2016) suggesting that the importance for Calle lies in the overall narrative rather than the intricacies of events.
There are distinct differences between the selected works, however, they all demonstrate Calle’s varying use of text and image. Despite being markedly different in realisation her process has remained the same, initiating social exchange through the creation of games and rituals (Calle and Macel, 2003). Calle’s work constantly investigates the bounds between what is public and private, redefining the parameters in terms of subject and object. This notion of public and private plays a large role within the understanding of her work, at times making it almost uncomfortable to observe as she finely mediates transgressive boundaries. The prevalence of fact and fiction become personal in Calle’s appropriation, taking parts of other people’s lives alongside her own to create her art through the manipulation of situations and individuals. This ethical dimension is seemingly not questioned due to the subjective nature of her work, the play between fact and fiction leaving the decision up to the observer. It is possible that this ambiguity is what makes her work so successful and that its appeal lies in the varying interpretations it allows. This is evident in all of the examined works as they can all be interpreted to different meanings although always generate a response within the viewer, as art should, forming the basis of its universal appeal. The enigmatic nature of her work is also furthered through the element of chance, which has a continual presence throughout her work. However through the analysis, it is unclear how real the element of chance is and it is possible that it is a construct of Calle’s carefully scripted fiction. Conditioned through her own presentation of self, although autobiographical in written form, outwith her work Calle is extremely private which suggests that her oeuvre is methodically planned and scripted.
In conclusion, due to the varied nature of Calle’s body of work, there is no one analysis that encompasses the rich and diverse nature of her enigmatic work, nor was that the intention of this investigation. However as identified, the themes of interpretation, narrative and chance have all be useful in providing an insight into her work and become ways of understanding her intentions. Despite this, each can be elaborated upon to uncover further meaning, seen through discussions of her multi-disciplinary approach which extends her work beyond the gallery. It is possible that the surrealist enigma that is Sophie Calle will perhaps never be understood but herein lies the beauty of her work.
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Fig.1. Suite Vénitienne, (Calle et. all, 1999)
Fig.2. Suite Vénitienne, (Calle et. all, 1999)
Fig.3. Unfinished, (Calle and Macel, 2003)
Fig.4. Take Care of Yourself, (Calle, 2008)