New York

Sophie Calle

There’s nothing in the world like the pain that accompanies the end of a great love affair. In his Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse, 1977), Roland Barthes isolates the way in which this piercing sorrow greets the spurned subject most cruelly in the blurry, semiconscious moments when he or she is roused from sleep. Making reference to the impotent protagonist of Stendhal’s Armance (1827), Barthes lists various manifestations of this unwelcome, if banal, daily return to suffering: “Modes of waking: sad, wracked (with tenderness), affectless, innocent, panic-stricken (Octave comes to, after fainting: ‘All of a sudden his miseries were clear in his mind: one does not die of pain, or he was a dead man at that moment’).”

The strange clarity born of amorous suffering was the focus of Sophie Calle’s project “Exquisite Pain” (2000). Indeed, she, like Octave before her, found herself able to locate the very instant when her grief hit its highest (or perhaps lowest) pitch, asserting itself powerfully enough to call up associations of death. Posted at the entrance to Calle’s exhibition was a deadpan synopsis: “In 1984,” it begins, “I was awarded a grant to go to Japan for three months. I left on October 25, not knowing that this date marked the beginning of a 92-day countdown to the end of a love affair—nothing unusual, but for me then the unhappiest moment of my whole life.” The first half of the show took the form of an archive of ephemera, with letters exchanged between Calle and her lover; photographs of people, places, and things encountered on her journey; and proof of passage including tickets and passport pages—each stamped, in descending order, with the number of days remaining before Calle was unceremoniously dumped for another woman.

Calle’s exquisite pain itself arrived by way of a cryptic message waiting for her at the airport in India where she and her lover had planned to meet. The artist clocked 2:00 AM at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi as her unhappiest moment, replaced the receiver of the red telephone on which she had just spoken with her now ex-lover, and took a picture of it. In the second half of the exhibition, this picture of the telephone reappeared twenty-one times, in every instance accompanied by a slightly different narrative of Calle’s heartbreak embroidered in white thread on gray silk. Alongside each of the artist’s increasingly—and intentionally—tedious remembrances appeared another anonymous response to the question “When did you suffer most?” posed by the artist to friends and strangers. Their replies, embroidered in grey thread on white fabric and illustrated by single images, include stories of tragic death, unrequited love, and even unattributable ennui. Calle’s gathering of others’ miseries was her attempt to exorcise her own suffering.

What might sound like an overload of melodrama, sentiment, and cliché here had the opposite effect, with borrowed emotions presented like so many specimens to be observed and compared. Rather than a spectacle of therapeutic commiseration, Calle pressed on the fine line between empathy and self-preservation, adopting a homeopathic strategy, whereby a carefully administered dose of poison counterintuitively amounts to a cure. Having, for over twenty years, explored the unstated social contracts governing human behavior, in “Exquisite Pain” Calle exhibited grief as simultaneously debilitating and recuperative, as something to be relativized and even consumed. Indeed, as she neared the third month post zero-degree unhappiness, the white thread telling her tale began to take on the gray of its silk background, making the text harder and harder to discern. Day number 98 on the nearly symmetrical count-up toward some semblance of normalcy comprises four terse phrases ending with the single word: ENOUGH. The last panel, representing day 99, is blank, marking the end of the show and, with it, the end of Calle’s unhappiness.

Johanna Burton