I first learned about the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle from a friend who was dealing with a break-up. My friend and I both have obsessive personalities, and she was finding it impossible to wrap her mind around the end of her relationship. She was talking about trying to channel her experience into art when she brought up Sophie's work. I was fascinated by Sophie's ability to turn her personal obsessive tendencies into powerful art exhibits that are soul baring without being exploitative.
I have yet to come across an artist who is able to erase the lines between private life and public art the way Sophie Calle does. In her 30+ year career, she has made art out of unadulterated voyeurism. She never attended a formal art school, choosing instead to spend her teenage years campaigning for the legalization of abortion and traveling the world. When she returned to Paris at the age of 26, she was unsure of what to do with herself and started following strangers around and photographing them as a way to get out of the house. She equated the feeling she got from these acts of voyeurism to being in love, and often had to remind herself that she didn't know these people and was not, in fact, in love with them. In 1980, after spotting a man at a party and meeting him later in the evening, she decided to don a blond wig and follow him to Venice. She found out where he was staying and shadowed him while he was there. The pictures that she took while she was there, as well as the diary she kept, turned into one of her more famous art projects entitled Suite Vénitienne.
For her project Address Book, she assembled a portrait of a man she had never met by calling the numbers in an address book of his that she found on the street. She asked the callers on the other line questions about the book's owner, and accompanied their answers with pictures of some of the man's favorite activities. The subject of this project was none too pleased when he found out about it, and demanded that he be allowed to publish a nude photo of Calle that he found in retaliation. Oh, France--how wonderful to wax romantic about a place where baring your soul is put on the same level as baring your skin!
Calle has let herself become the subject of voyeurism as well. At Sophie's request, her mother hired a private investigator to follow her around for a year taking pictures. The investigator was unaware that Sophie was in on it, and the photos that he took helped to provide Calle with what she saw as evidence of her own existence. For The Sleepers, over the course of a week she invited both friends and strangers to each sleep in her bed for eight hours at a time. In one of her more recent projects (and one of my favorites), she took a break-up letter sent to her by her ex, and after asking her friend how she should respond, she got the idea to turn it into an art project. She sent a copy of the letter to 107 different women and asked them to interpret it based on their professions. A crossword setter turned it into a puzzle, a copy editor corrected its grammatical and syntactical errors, a markswoman shot it with her rifle, and an etiquette consultant critiqued the writer's manners. The letter was interpreted by a singer, an actress, and a clown. She titled the finished project Take Care of Yourself, which was how her ex ended the letter. It went on to debut to rave reviews at the Venice Biennale, and the Tate Modern has a video of it here (it wouldn't let me embed it into this post.) In the video, she talks about another deeply personal project in which she chronicles on video the death of her mother.
I can see how Calle's work might raise a few eyebrows, and maybe even more "this is art?" types of questions. But the ability of her art to break down the walls between the picture and the viewer, the subject and the artist, and the personal and the private is at least noteworthy. Maybe that's what's so scary about Sophie's art--it makes sense of irrational obsessions, and it takes away the buffer zone that exists between us and the unknown or unfamiliar. It's art without any sort of abstraction.