A Practice Without Center: the Work of Sophie Calle

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. The destructive character is young and cheerful…it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition.
…The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of rubble, but for the way of leading through it.
The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

–Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character,” 1931

Before I got irritated and said, “It’s not true, I never said that.” I now rub my hands, when I’ve found something wrong. It’s another way of taking care of myself, a way of turning things around. Instead of being upset about being misinterpreted, I go looking for it. I hope for it, wait for it. It’s the right method: turning things to my advantage in order not to suffer from them. –Sophie Calle in an interview with The Guardian, June 2007

© Trong Nguyen, 2007


I have spent an inordinate amount of energy and effort trying to determine whether who I am about to write about is worth all or any of this time and effort. Usually I use this space to write about what is stirring me most, what is making me think, getting me to look. And really, Sophie Calle‚Äôs work accomplishes all of those things–but the stirring, the thinking, the looking that it precipitates has been of the order that leads by stellar negation of every guiding principle in art or raison d’être that I possess. In short, she represents everything I maintain to be totally, totally wrong with photography and, by extension, the artworld-at-large.

What I want to write about is messy, provocative, full of quasi-moralistic and ethical slippery slopes. It will undoubtedly end up revealing many of my own prejudices, biases, and weaknesses, but in exchange for that it is my hope that it begins a dialog concerning some if not all of the following questions:

–For what, and whom, and to what ends does one make art?
–How important is it the question of ethical responsibility in the creation of art, and how subjective can that terminology be?
–How important are questions?
–Art or art-therapy?
–What is the difference between making work that calls into question an accepted Establishment, and working in service to perpetuate and celebrate that Establishment; or worse yet, state that you are doing the first, when in practice and by critical reception you are doing the second?
–To what degree is the Artworld (with a capital A) complicit, if not responsible for, privileging and celebrating solipsism as an artistic concern?
–How important is it that the artist be aware of the further extended meanings of their output and oeuvre, and how what they create ends up extending or limiting a genre, a protracted way of thinking about things, or informing/influencing a culture and emerging artists whose only prevailing mode is to emulate and imitate?
–More important: intelligence or cleverness? How much has art let the latter be confused, mistaken for, the former?

To begin, I’d like to revisit a schematic I brought up in an earlier post, that of Photographic Character. This is what I wrote on it before:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography


photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

So given that, what is the photographic/artistic character of Sophie Calle? What is her art?

From what I’ve gleaned from interviews and writings on her, Calle would delight in the apparent failing of language to describe just what it is she does, as testified by the far-ranging terms and labels applied when critics write about her: documentarian, voyeur, writer, photographer, social detective, conceptual artist, installation artist, performance artist, provocateur.

Almost a decade ago, when I first heard her name, I was told about projects in which she followed people across streets and countries on a whim and documented it, or took menial service jobs in order to spy on the people she was hired to work for, or found an address book in the street and called up all the people in it to get a portrait of the person who owned the book (and published these various recollections of the address book owner in a 28-day spread in Liberation), or the time she got different people to sleep in her bed every night and photographed them. In every case of those who spoke about her, there was a sense of an ungainly crush: admiration voiced for her seemingly endless clever output coupled with a desire to dream up a project as neat, witty and as precisely orchestrated as one of Sophie Calle’s.

It would be years before I’d come across her again, and when I did it was through the intermediary of Hervé Guibert, who writes bitingly about her in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, giving her the not-so-graceful nom-de-plume “Anna-the-pain-in-the-ass.” Sleuthing around I discovered that the photographer he was referring to was Sophie Calle, and then I was stunned to find him cross-referenced by her–and in fact that entire earlier writing by Guibert reproduced, and then answered in turn, by Calle in Exquisite Pain. At the time I was pleased with the connection (and for having come to her by reading Guibert first; this first narration would become important later when I would be enmeshed in the complex and compulsive world of the self-editing that Calle does in her pieces). Exquisite Pain is the first Calle piece I’d ever seen, in the flesh–a seductive little object.

The first incarnation of this work was a book. A book that was fifteen years in the making, or, more precisely, fifteen years in the putting-off. in an interview with Bice Curiger in 1992, Calle was asked:

BC: Did you ever start a project from an obsession which didn’t work out, that you didn’t end up exhibiting?
Calle: There is a project I’ve been trying to do for five years. Every time I have a new idea, anything, I do the new one quickly to postpone this one. But I’m sure there will be a day soon when I have no ideas and I will have to do this one. It’s a project about unhappiness…There is a medical term called ‘exquisite pain.’ When you break your arm, if you put your finger where it was broken, they call the pain you feel exquisite pain. And I could put my finger just on the second of my pain. This was the thing that interested me.

The book itself is a refined little thing. red-foiled pages on the edge, narrow, novella-length. in what i would become familiar with as her typical reportage/diaristic writing convention, the “story” told is that of a count-“up” to and a counting-away from Calle’s unhappiest moment, that precise time at which the pain she felt was, to her estimation, “exquisite.”

She had won an art grant. She decided to use it to go to a place she would never normally choose to go, a place where she in fact did not want to visit. It was a three-month award. her lover at that time threatened that he could not be faithful for that long a separation, and that he would leave her. She made arrangements to meet him at the end of the grant at a hotel in New Dehli, India. She goes to Japan for the appointed duration, flies to India, and on the evening of their reunion she gets receives a message that he is not coming. When she finally reaches him by phone many hours later, she is told that he has met someone else.

The second half of the book is an exercise in revisionist autobiography. On the left side of each facing page is Calle’s recounting of her moment of greatest suffering, beginning with how many days ago the day of suffering occurred. Each recounting varies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes telling more about the day, sometimes more about her personal history as it led up to this day. Each photo on this page of her describing her unhappiest moment is the same, the photo of the bed and the red phone on which she received her bad news. as the book nears its end, the text that is written by Calle about this day begins to diminish in tone, blending in with the black of the page. on the last day of her recounting, there is nothing there that is visible to be read. Contrasted with this repeated (with variations) narrative, on the adjoining page is the story of someone else, someone that Calle has found and asked to tell her: What in your life has been your moment of Exquisite Pain? Each of these narratives are different, and if pain were set on scales, the bias quickly becomes that the anonymous storyteller is oftener a tale of a weighter and more devastating degree. The act of placing the reader in the position of evaluating which pain is the greater, or even more precisely: that of presenting them on facing pages as Equal, is one of the central conceits of this project.

© Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain

I would later encounter this piece in installation form at the Powerplant in Toronto, and then learned still later of its next planned iteration and (possible?) final resting place as a collaborative work between her and Frank Gehry. Clearly, Calle knows how to get the most mileage out of recycled materials; the most bang for the buck.

And then, in 2007, would come her single most legitimizing art moment to date: Her inclusion–twice!–in the Venice Biennale, with the main exhibition curated by Robert Storr. She was also chosen to represent the country of France in their national pavilion. This last piece, “Take Care of Yourself” is another take of hers on the theme of the jilted lover, in this case she uses an break-up email she received from a recent beau, given it to over a hundred women to dissect and denounce, all according to their life’s work and craft, and then in turn documented by Calle. The press for this installation was overwhelmingly positive–shades of the glib artworld crush come back to haunt us here–and of everything shown at the Biennale that year, was arguably the slickest, most put-together of anything else on display.

Gender difference, female solidarity, humorous revenge and female empowerment are all cited as the artistic concerns of the project. Equally lauded is the unifying, collaborative effort that Calle used to create the piece, culling the reactions, responses and creative efforts of 107 women of varying nationalities, ages, backgrounds and occupations. Sounds good, right? At least good enough to be a successful Benetton campaign if not the selection for the French national pavilion. Speaking of advertising campaigns, one of the pavilion’s official corporate sponsors was Chanel, which, according to the press release, the venerable fashion house concluded that this latest work of Calle’s was: “…firmly rooted in a feminine universe that is passionately attached to freedom and daring, it is a perfect echo of the brand universe and the pioneering spirit of Mademoiselle Chanel.” But what of it: culture, commerce, sass and class?

Robert Storr had it right back in 2003, when he wrote in Art Press that she was “decidedly bourgeois rather than bohemian,” and moreover a “downright annoying…embodiment of the unreliable narrator” and finally, that, “Hers is a labyrinth with a walled-off chamber at its center, a maze of mazes without a core.” One of my (many) issues with Calle’s work (which Storr astutely refers to as overly preoccupied with her “sentimental education”) is her bullish confusion of universal experience with literary tropes. She has said that her materials are the banal experiences of everyday life, and that what she makes art out of is no different than the French luminaries that came before her, writing about their private lives: Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire. But, of course, there is a difference. What Calle loves is the general, of being without content. It’s the page itself she’s interested in, not the page as materiality, or the page as it exists, but the blank of it, the lack of it. She is not aware of this, and what she is working through is not the Lacanian “lack.” Her lack isn’t the white of the page, but the blur: what is indistinct. She is utterly solipsistic: in her work she continually refers to the self, and then mistakes and exhibits her experiences as universal feeling. Sophie Calle is the subject, a spectacle of generality, a tautology of never escaping the circle of the self.

Calle is the unhealthy art equivalent of the hegemony of shelter porn: frothy, light, easily digestible, clever and rich. She prides herself on being controversial and provocative, but who is she ever really at the risk of offending? Who in her audience is in possession of sensibilities, culture, education or tastes that are different from–or in opposition to–her own? Her artistic project overlooks the existence of difference or the Other, and using 107 different women to comment upon a a break-up letter she’s received doesn’t begin to address that all of those whose participation she sought she considers (perhaps unconsciously) her equals. She never examines the limits of her world-view, and has a complete myopic disregard for the social. Some people would claim that’s her charm. A wealthy, Europeanized, cosmopolitan audience is to whom her work is addressed and that which comprises her artistic boundary condition.

It’s my own conceit that art has an ethical responsibility not to manufacture experiences, but to manufacture thinking, what Walter Benjamin refers to as the “call” of the art work, i.e. to respond to the call of thinking. In my estimation, Sophie Calle is not an artist, but an editor. In an interview given about her project Exquisite Pain, she said that, “…when you edit things from your life, one moment becomes more specific than another. It’s all in the editing, not in the life.” While she edits, what she practices is an edit without questions, without premise, only formula. She calls the premise for her projects her ideas, says that she is full of ideas, but Ideas they are not; these are parlor questions. She frames herself through the references of repetition and disappearance, but doesn’t use them in an authentic or true way. What she does is manipulate these references to distill and create an affect. What she creates isn’t related to thinking; what she creates is affectation. As an editor, she is also a greedy one, taking and taking and taking. Instead of trafficking in ideas or thinking, she takes other people’s thoughts and experiences as her art supplies, and then calls it collaboration. Hers is ultimately a cynical view of the world, one in which we continually push one another’s buttons. She escapes the criticism of being jaded and cynical by couching the boundaries of her projects as a joke. Her notion is that the joke transcends the trauma, so that one is not owned or consumed by it, but healed in spite of it.

In terms of her artistic reception and acceptance, it discourages me greatly that the Art World is so charmed, so titillated, so utterly taken with her. There is little if any criticality, no questions–just a lazy acceptance/complicity to be entertained by her solipsism. What does Calle’s artistic project reflect back and say about the so-called Art World? That this is an entity in love with its own image, that flatters itself, creates affectations and deflects attention away from wondering why does one create affectations, and in so doing, deflects meaning.

I first heard Sophie Calle’s name while in an MFA critique when I was studying photography. My linking of her to established art institutions is intentional, as through my own experience of her and in my research of the available press on her demonstrates that she is at once everything that MFA programs teach their students to aspire to in their practice and also everything that people who have thought deeply on the matter believe is what’s intrinsically wrong with MFA programs today. In an important conversation about the state of art education today, Art In America published an exhaustive critique of its academic and studio traditions, written by its practitoners and educators. Following are a few excerpts from the May 2007 article:

  • We teach artists both a litany of names and the fashioning of individuality. Instead of working on a practice, it is the artist who is worked on, pushed to internalize the art world, to take it seriously and to produce an identity in its image. –Howard Singerman, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • …students in American MFA programs are educated in an environment that all too often replicates our country’s debilitating isolation from global diversity and ideas. –Lawrence Rinder, Calif. College of Arts, SF
  • …everyone ignores the real need: to resuscitate a way of talking about art that recognizes the value of art as a theory in itself, a thing that is impractical and politically useless…the best art students…need to learn imaginative ways to step outside their own historicist subjectivity in order to understand the extent to which they are unwittingly trapped by it. –Laurie Fendrich, Hofstra
  • The European approach is entirely based on charismatic figures and the myth of “free education.” –Bruce Ferguson, Columbia Univ.
  • In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early 1970’s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete. –Dave Hickey, Univ. of Nevada

The emphasis on selecting and committing to a critically appealing personal project that was, at least in my educational experience, the mantra of the MFA program, is the space that Sophie Calle inhabits totally, and in her example are the lessons that are internalized by those academies of artistic training. Where we should read a cautionary tale we are instead entreated to emulate and imitate, and where we should be creating work that compels thought we instead are told to come up with clever ideas.

Goethe once wrote that at the age of 18, German literature was as old as he was. And a century or so later, Walter Benjamin said that what Goethe was to German literature, he aspired to be to criticism. In his essay “A Small History of Photography,” (1931) Benjamin writes something that, in my reflections on the subject of Sophie Calle and by extension upon the notion of Photographic Character, is as bitingly relevant as ever, and is the thought I’d like to end this essay with:

The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyze the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where the caption comes in, whereby photography turns all life’s relationships into literature; and without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the approximate. Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a culprit? Is it not the task of the photographer–descendant of the augurs and haruspices–to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? “The illiteracy of the future,” someone has said, “will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.” But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less counted as illiterate?

9 thoughts on “A Practice Without Center: the Work of Sophie Calle

  1. Pingback: On Shadow » Sophie Calle

  2. I’m so glad to have found your writing (via a link on wood s lot). I’m not familiar with Sophie Calle at all, but the issues that concern you and your writing are very important to me — the concept of making and how it informs our understanding of the artistic process and the artwork itself. I’ve written about it before as the ‘aesthetics of process’ but I still feel very far from even being able to articulate the problems I feel on an essential but obscure level.

    I’m really looking forward to working through your archives.

  3. Truly interesting and complex, requires serious reflection before any meaningful comment could be made. Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

  4. I’ve just discovered your site doing a search on Masahisa Fukase and I am absolutely thrilled. it will take me years to discover and read and look at everything you have here. for now I just want to thank you for the wonderful world in-between you’ve created here.

  5. Your essay is concise and persuasive– to keep this comment short, I’d like to simply assent to its many compelling points. Yes! Sophie is a bad bourgeois little witch. Vampy and vapid, she’s mastered manipulation and the trope of betrayal without really having to expose herself in the construction of a narrative, which yes, does ultimately produce a closed and cynical view of the world. And yes! MFA programs are cheap bags of shit dedicated to producing glossy products for an audience that is trapped on the other side of archival space.

    But what then, makes Calle’s work compelling to that very audience? Is it merely her provocation of the female object as death drive that sucks us into her quasi-conceptual shit? Or might her extraordinary cleverness actually have attuned to a sphere of which she’s not aware, or perhaps even capable of fully realizing? For me, the most tantalizing loose thread of your essay occurs after Robert Storr’s clever quotation in your assessment of her lack of content and love affair with generality. Perhaps generality, blur, or even solipsism, a la Wittgenstein, might gesture to an overlooked, less bourgeois aesthetics order.

    My orange cat just failed to jump on the bed! One day, she will be dead, and I will only have her photograph to haunt me. Make a piece about that, Sophie!

  6. Pingback: Ars.lan » Who the fuck is Sophie Calle?

  7. I assumed as I was reading this entry that it was an homage to Hunter Thompson and his way of inventing wonderful characters to embody what he was was writing about.:-)

  8. Pingback: Narrative – Project 2: Image and text – Research point | My Learning (B)Log – Context and Narrative

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