It is a stiflingly hot day in August, and Sophie Calle is wearing a flowered dress and tinted eyeglasses, listening to Bob Dylan’s latest album in a loft-like space she calls ‘my church’. The house is a former chapel in the Camargue, the wild region of southern France where the artist has spent summers throughout her life. A zebra bursts from the wall above the door, part of her large taxidermy collection, each animal named after a different friend (the zebra is Daniel, as in Buren, a French artist renowned for his work with stripes). Another wall features an assortment of art pieces by Calle and others, including, framed in silver lettering, the word ‘souci’ (‘worry’), the last thing her mother said. Abandoned tombstones decorate the garden.
Calle, 67, has become one of France’s most important contemporary artists by using her own life and the imagined lives of others as subject matter. Her books and exhibitions combine photos or video with text, exploring such themes as absence, death, suffering and desire. She does not hesitate to break taboos, overstep boundaries, or invite viewers to share in the discomfort (or guilty pleasure) of voyeurism. Even when the content is mundane, the works are provocative and compelling. They can be surprisingly touching, and just as surprisingly funny.
The day before we meet, Calle has taken her camera into the Camargue to shoot hunting watchtowers for her ongoing project, A l’Affût (‘On the Hunt’, previewed on page 094). The related book, Sans Lui, is available now (the title, ‘Without Him’, relates to the untimely death of her longtime editor, Xavier Barral). The project began when Paris’ Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, or museum of hunting and nature, invited Calle to exhibit. It was shortly after her father’s death in 2015, and she was still mourning his loss. ‘I was in a fallow period, creatively, with no real desire to do anything,’ she says. ‘I considered quitting art altogether.’
Gradually, the commission started to excite her, and she discovered that the hunting magazine Le Chasseur Français had been publishing matrimonial ads since 1895. Reasoning that the hunt for wild animals was not unlike the hunt for a potential mate, she combed through the archives to find what mating criteria best represented each decade. ‘They followed the trends of society. At first, money. Then virginity. After the war, many were related to physicality – a paralysed soldier could now accept a cleft lip.’ By 2017, when Calle included Tinder profiles in her research, she found that proximity was top of the list. To accompany the text, she is using her photos of watchtowers, (symbolising predators) and highway surveillance images of animals at night (symbolising prey).
Hunting of one sort or another is integral to much of Calle’s work. For an early project, Suite Vénitienne (1980), she followed a man from a party in Paris to Venice, stalking him through the Italian city and scrupulously noting her own emotional journey along the way. In other seminal works, she asked her mother to hire a private detective to trail her, worked as a hotel chambermaid and photographed the personal objects in guests’ rooms, and found a lost address book and called every name within to create a profile of its owner.
Though these works disclose much that is personal, their subjects remain as elusive as composite police sketches. ‘I don’t have the impression that I’m revealing intimacies,’ Calle explains. ‘These are moments that I highlight. To know that a man took this street and not another, or dined at 8pm, is not information. The investigation is more about me and my feelings than him. I’m the one going towards him.’ Imagining someone from a distance is a way of exposing herself.
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