Sophie Calle’s work is based on two principles: first, an urgent desire to understand other people and second, the ultimate revelation that the fulfillment of this desire may be impossible. Calle’s art does not like secrets and even the most trivial, ordinary encounters receive painstaking analysis. Her 2007 book Take Care of Yourself, for instance, starts with letter she received from a lover, breaking off their relationship. In an attempt to resolve the pain and doubt she felt, she analyzed the letter and asked other women to do the same. “I asked 107 women . . . to interpret this letter,” Calle writes in the introduction to the book, “To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me. It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way of taking care of myself.”
This is classic Calle – she uses multiple angles, mediums, and exhaustive methods to always reach the same conclusion: there is something missing, there is something beyond our grasp, some things are unknown, some things you just can’t get over. Calle teeters on the edge of voyeurism, narcissism, and obsession, while somehow also conveying tenderness and human dignity. She can shock with her troubling reductions of human experience and life into schedules, numbers, Braille inscriptions, assorted photos, and lists. At the same time, the earnestness of her approach and the vulnerability that she, herself, is subjected to in the process somehow dignifies the proceedings. She is a difficult artist, an artist who sometimes pushes over the line of morality and decency, but ultimately one worth considering in depth because nothing less than the meaning of individual human lives is at stake.
Calle’s new Gemini exhibition goes through similar means and reaches her same conclusion, but is many, many years in the making. In 1983, Calle found an address book and made a copy of it. Subsequently, Calle decided that she wanted to know the owner of the address book, a man referred to in the project as Pierre. Calle arranged meetings, phone calls, and interviewed the people in the address book and asked them to recount their recollections of Pierre, building evidence and information that would hopefully lead to some knowledge of the man. She printed her findings in the French newspaper Liberation. Horrified, Pierre responded with his own gesture, printing a nude photo of Calle in the paper as well. Pierre was incensed and Calle has waited to put the finishing touches to the project off until after Pierre’s death. The Gemini project then is a culmination of a long arduous story that ends twenty-six years later here on Melrose for all to see.
Calle’s has always used many different mediums to get her point across, and like a good conceptualist, usually exploits the qualities of each medium whether it is a mass released newspaper, a book, a video, or a photograph. Calle is highly attuned to how formatting can impact a work’s meaning and printmaking is a natural outlet. In one brilliant use of the printing process, she associates gathering evidence about Pierre to reading Braille, how a number of symbols can add up to something elusive. The best print in the series, an absolutely jarring image, shows simply the number of entries under each letter in the address book, 25A, 63B, 35C, . . etc, printed in raised, Braille typography, a haunting reminder that a human life to Calle can be meager and reducible to an awful simplicity. It’s On Kawara without the comfort of the many, collected days of evidence which certifies that he is alive.
But Calle does collect a number of heartening bits about Pierre, and it comes across gently that Calle does, in fact, care a great deal about her subject. Most of the prints in the series feature accounts of Calle attempting to interview people in the address book: some know Pierre quite well while others have just met him once, some were briefly business associates while others outright refused to be interviewed. Calle gathers and presents evidence in a strange way -- these are no mere fact finding journeys, but an effort on her part to account of the complete experience of finding Pierre, meaning that she is involved. There are no court room testimonies, but little pieces of interpretation taking artistic license, the arrangement of the text with a photo to denote something about either Pierre, her experience of finding Pierre, or some other unspoken thing that needs expression. Calle seems to merge with her subject, and that may be the ultimate meaning of all of these proceedings – that Calle herself is made and lost through others.
(All images courtesy of the artist and Gemini G.E.L.)