Los Angeles

Sophie Calle

Fred Hoffman Gallery

In delicate and menacing fashion, Sophie Calle explores questions of identity. This show consists of seven simple yet lengthy photo/text works produced by the French artist between 1979 and 1988. In Les Dormeurs (The sleepers, 1979), Calle set up an eight-day schedule, during which time a different person occupied her bed every eight hours. After each segment, the person was asked to leave, no exceptions, so the next sleeper could enter. She sat in a chair and observed her subjects, photographing them, establishing contact with minimal conversation, and taking notes. She also fed her subjects and offered them clean sheets. Why would someone comply with this eerie proposal? The participants weren’t in need of a roof over their heads. Perhaps appealing to the atheist who does not live under the presence of God, Calle offered up her own brand of protection. Some may have felt comforted by having the artist watch them. On the other hand, who could sleep in front of the scratching note pad and the quizzical eyeball? Apparently everyone.

Calle’s project, consisting of 176 photographs and 33 texts, showed how sleepers exist somewhere outside of life, in a heightened, blessed moment with a tinge of queer mundanity to it. By having her bed occupied at all times, Calle also set up a controlled relationship requiring both risk and trust. She might’ve harmed her subjects, or they her. Though no one actually used the bed for sex, the work rests in the field of sex, vulnerability, and power.

In Les Aveugles (The blind, 1986), Calle asked a range of people who were born blind what their image of beauty is. She recorded this in three forms: head shot of a blind person, in most cases with the subject’s functionless eyes distorting the face into a kind of benign monster; written descriptions of beauty from the blind person; and photographs depicting the particular beauty. A young girl offered three examples: “Sheep, that’s what’s beautiful. Because they don’t move and because they have wool,” “My mother is beautiful, too, because she’s tall and her hair goes down to her bottom,” and “Alain Delon.” In another case a young man offered no images saying, “I’ve buried beauty. I don’t need beauty, I don’t need images in my brain. Since I cannot appreciate beauty, I have always run away from it.” All of these cerebral landscapes are emotionally piercing.

In L’Homme Au Carnet (The man’s address book, 1983), Calle uncovered a man’s identity by phoning and interviewing his friends and acquaintances, then publishing their comments, along with a different photograph each day, in the French newspaper Libération for an entire month. In La Filature (The shadow, 1981), Calle had her mother hire a private detective to watch the artist’s every move; this echoed an earlier work in which she followed someone for a year. For L’Hôtel, 1983, Calle got herself hired as a chambermaid, photographing and writing about the rooms she cleaned. She relates absurd fragmentary conversations she overhears, as well as the sounds of the guests having sex. She reports all evidence of domestic habits: accessories, wardrobe, books, leftover food, recently washed underwear that drips on the bathroom radiator, photographs, personal notes, “a tube and a jar of vaseline,” and a “mind boggling pair of shoes.” Things heat up when Calle describes the contents of suitcases, wallets, and diaries. These assembled fragments of a life and person are frighteningly particular, but they also fall into a fictive zone in which nothing is definitive or traceable. The personal data become like the contents of a shopping cart; it’s humanity minus the soul. At the same time, these underhanded stabs at the notion of character fulfill the artist’s, and subject’s, elementary levels of desire and curiosity. Much of the work reeks of provocative loneliness. All of the pieces carry a tone of tragic diminution, both in the subjects she observes and in her own solitary adventures.

Benjamin Weissman