Sophie Calle filmed elderly people's first experience with the sea.
Voir la mer, 2011 digital film with color and sound, framed photograph. Edition of 3. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, Paris/New York
I arrived at the Musee d'art Contemporain (MAC) in Montreal during blizzard conditions. The museum was closed to visitors, so after buzzing security, I entered through a discreet side door. Inside, the rooms were bustling with art handlers working on installing exhibitions. I dropped my suitcase and heavy coat in a press office. I had finally made it. I was ready (though admittedly nervous) to meet Sophie Calle, one of my all time favorite artists, a woman I have idolized for years.
Sophie Calle is perhaps France's most famous conceptual artist. I have always loved her use of images and text to convey personal narratives. Her work tends to be deeply autobiographical, pushing some critics to view her as self-involved, or as The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl put it, she "has used certain predilections of the art world... to advance/indulge/realize herself." Conversely, in cases where Calle's work is deeply invested in the lives of others, it is sometimes deemed invasive and exploitive. In any case, the work is always intimate, obsessive, jarring, and emotionally charged.
In 1978, when Calle was 25 years old, she returned to Paris after seven years of roaming across North and South America. She struggled to re-adapt to fashionable Parisian society, and after months of reclusiveness, decided to follow people in the streets—not because they particularly interested her, but for the pleasure of following them. "I just had to choose a person and follow him and that way my day would simply drift by," she said to Another Magazine. This makes Calle sound like a flaneur, but when she followed a man from Paris to Venice, armed with a blonde wig and a camera, she produced Suite Venitienne (1980), which was quickly noticed and celebrated by both French and international critics.
In her extensive career, Calle continues to incorporate moments of her life into her art, recreating them both beautifully and tragically. She recently filmed her mother minute-by-minute as she passed away (the piece is titled Rachel, Monique). Yet she also produces work where her sense of curiosity and fearlessness are aimed directly into the lives of others.
For the First and Last Time is an exhibition combining two of Calle's recent projects. In 2010, she was sent to Istanbul to make work for the European Capital Culture. There Calle pursued an idea that had been lingering ever since she made Blind (1984), a project in which she interviewed two dozen people who were born blind and asked them to describe their image of beauty. For The Last Image (2010) she spoke to those who were not born blind, but had become blind, and asked them to describe the last image they ever saw. All of the responses have been edited down by Calle, creating a poignant, nostalgic tone.
As Calle was making this project, she came across a newspaper article that described a group of Istanbul residents who came from central Turkey, and had never seen the sea. Istanbul is a city dominated by water, and most of them only lived about 15 miles away from it. This immediately caught Calle's attention, and she decided to find some of these people and film their reaction to seeing the sea for the first time. The result is a project titled Voir la mer (To See the Sea).
The exhibit displays 14 short films on large screens. As we stand behind the men and women, we join them in bearing witness to the sea for the first time, their shoulders and subtle movements display their touching emotion. Each participant is directed to watch the sea for as long as they desire, and then turn to the camera. Some are in tears, some in joy. "When an old man or woman has never seen the sea," Calle says, "there is an element of drama to this."
As I watched these people gazing at the ocean, Calle suddenly walked right past me, wearing 50s-style dark butterfly glasses and a big coat. She had blown out, confident hair, and looked effortlessly French. She spoke to a technician about how things were going, and after I introduced myself, gave me a firm handshake and explained that there was still a lot of work left to do; they were replacing all of the video screens, hanging more frames, and finessing many details. She had been overseeing the installation of the show for three days, evidence of the meticulous attention she pays to the presentation of her work.
Calle has a history of being difficult to interview, sometimes refusing to answer questions she finds irrelevant, too general, or boring. In 2009 she wrote, "I should have been a secret agent: if I were secret enough no one would ask me what music I listen to, what books I read, or what art is for. I don't like to answer questions." I had prepared for the worst, but was pleasantly surprised by her attentiveness to our conversation.
VICE: The last thing your mother Monique wanted to do before she died was to see the sea.
Yes, and we went.
Does that have anything to do with showing people the sea for the first time?
No, nothing. She wanted to see New York, and the sea. We couldn't go to New York but we went to the sea.
Did you have any expectations? What if the Turks in your project didn't react to the sea?
Well, you know, I wasn't sure it would work. I believed in it but I wasn't sure. It's the first time I don't use words—because of my experience with Turkish, there isn't a direct relation, things get lost in translation. I was pretty sure that the emotion was stronger than words, what can you say about the sea? The sea is amazing? The sea is more than what I expected? Its immensity? I was afraid the comment would be banal compared to what the eyes express.
You focus on details, moments in life—I read there was a project you didn't end up doing, it was to ask couples where they met, and then go to the location—at the same time of the year, and day, and wait.
I only did it once. Maybe I'll do it one day. I thought it would be a good idea but I didn't do it.
What keeps you motivated to work on projects?
The wall, making art, books, doing things... it's my way of being alive. It's also my job. I like the life it gives me. To travel. All this keeps me motivated. Pleasure, emotion, money.
When you were younger, I heard you didn't want to be an artist.
It's not that I didn't want to be an artist, I didn't think of it.
But now I'm 62 and it's the complete opposite, I can't think of not being an artist. Now when I walk in the street, I think how can I use it? I hear a phrase, I register it, and think how can this be an idea? I'm aware in situations, I think of how I can use or transform it. Yesterday, I spent 12 hours in the hospital of Montreal. I have a little health problem. In those 12 hours there were two to three hours where I was afraid, two to three where I was bored, because it was very long, and two to three where I thought, what can I do with this? As life happens a project is always a possibility. But when I go eat with a friend, I'm not thinking what's the possibility of this becoming a project? When I'm at a nightclub, I'm not watching, thinking who can I photograph? But phrases, an article in the newspaper—not my love life, not my friend's life—but an event has potential. There are many things in life that I don't use, there are three men I have used for projects No Sex Last Night, Take Care of Yourself, and another—I hadn't planned to make those projects. For example, it was the way my friend talked about the letter in Take Care of Yourself that suddenly put me on the track. And sometimes, I'm invited to Istanbul and I have to find an idea—a project sometimes just appears in a miraculous way.
Will you ever come back to live in New York?
I fell a little in love with Paris. New York was much more lively, it was good at my age to move out, not be protected. But now I'm a little more lazy, I like to speak in French, write in French, I get tired when I just speak English. Maybe it's a sad reason, but my age is one. I like my house in Paris, and the language is a big part of it. For me, I understand the tonality in French, the pronunciation, but in English I don't have that rapidity. I don't get the accent and the subtleties and language is part of my pleasure. That's the problem about living abroad.
About New York, to say that "it was better before " is a little "vieux con"—how do you say that?—"old asshole." I hate when people say this. But at the same time, I think New York was better before. Maybe because I'm too old to get it now, I don't know, but I think it was better.
Do you ever find showing work in galleries limiting?
Every time I make a project, I make a book to make the project more accessible. It's an easy solution, it's a different pleasure than the wall. The book is more natural, the wall is more complex, more thinking is involved. In a way, I do the books very easily. I love fabricating books, the wall is more of a fight. They are two very different pleasures.
Interior spaces can serve as a reflection of personality. You have many taxidermy animals at home, right?
I have a lot of stuffed animals in my house, more than a hundred. I don't feel morbid at all. On the contrary I feel lively, but I collect a lot of objects linked to death—images of graveyards, stuffed animals... it's an attraction, I'm not Catholic, but I like to pass by the church.
Sophie then showed me a photo of a giraffe taxidermy, with a black and white image of her younger self holding a toy giraffe. "This is me, and this is Monique, named after my mother," she said.
The absence of a mother, the absence of life, the absence of sight, the absence of love. No matter how old she is, Sophie Calle is relentlessly questioning it all and—whether through the pages of a book or the walls of a gallery—placing it in front of us thoughtfully, and beautifully.
For the First and Last Time will be on view until May 10, 2015 at the Musee d'art Contemporain in Montreal.
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