Saturday, 12 December 2009

"As if I no longer recognised myself in my own existence ... " Sophie Calle at The Whitechapel Gallery

My first encounter with the French writer, photographer and conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, was, perhaps appropriately, as a fictional character. Maria Turner, a figure in Paul Auster's novel, Leviathan, is a conceptual artist who bears a striking similarity to Sophie Calle. Several of her works are described in the novel, some of which - following and photographing strangers in the street, piecing together a man's life by following the leads of an address book found in the park, &c. - had already been carried out by Calle. Others - such as The Chromatic Diet, a colour-coded nutritional regimen for each day of the week - had not, but once Calle read the book, she decided to "be like Maria" and carry out these additional tasks, even writing to Auster and inviting him to "invent a fictive character which I would attempt to resemble" (Auster demured, offering instead a series of suggestions on "how to improve life in New York City"). 
Leviathan was not the first time Sophie Calle had become the object of another's narrative. In 1980, Calle had her mother hire a private detective to follow her around Paris. The resulting reports and photographs became a project, The Detective, in which Calle, conscious of being trailed, leads her tail round various favoured, or otherwise meaningful, spots about Paris. As in Double Game, the book Calle authored containg those works of hers which either inspired, or were inspired by, those of Maria Turner; the detective's story, in which Calle is a character, then becomes part of another, broader narrative, being told by Calle herself. She becomes the architect of her own fictionality, and like Serge Doubrovsky, inventor of 'autofiction', is swallowed by her own text. 
In her latest work, Take Care of Yourself, it is the text itself that is swallowed in a web of interpretations: a break-up email is analysed and interpreted by over one hundred women specialists, from jurists and psychiatrists, to pop singers, actresses - even a parrot (which literally eats its words). As each successive approach redoubles the text, adding layers of complexity to its meaning, the letter itself disappears - most literally in the work of a proofreader, from whose biro scribbles and highlighter blobs, the original text has been removed, leaving a kind of day-glo Mondrian in its wake. "She has lost herself in the other's traces," said Baudrillard of his former pupil. He sees in Calle's stalking a kind of game, constantly on the edge of seduction - and murder. "To shadow another is to give him, in fact,  double life, a parallel existence. Any commonplace existence can be transfigured (without one's knowledge), any exceptional existence can be made commonplace. It is this effect of doubling that makes the object surreal in its banality and weaves around it the strange (eventually dangerous?) web of seduction."
Still their lurks about Sophie Calle something of Francisco Lopez's attack on the Cagean philosophy of music, "The main point is always - and in a very essential sense - about the way music is made, about the procedure. And this is a misleading distraction for music. It distracts the attention of music practicioners (creators, perceivers or whatever) from the actual music to the way it has been made. The procedure becomes a value in itself, for its own sake." I was always fascinated when I would hear stories about Sophie Calle's work, but actually going to the Whitechapel Gallery to 'witness' them first hand left me a little nonplussed. I didn't need to see Feist looping her own voice through a Vox practice amp nor did it enrich my understanding of the work. Indeed we are clearly not supposed to pay too much attention to every last exhibit, every last performance, rather to be bludgeoned by their sheer volume. Calle's work exists best as a story passed amongst friends rather than anything you might really point to and call a 'work'. She becomes then a kind of mythical figure, someone people tell stories about, and about whom stories are invented and passed on. "He understood," says Maria Turner in Leviathan, "that all my pieces were stories, and even if they were true stories, they were also invented." In the end, the true fiction is Calle herself.