Paris

Sophie Calle, Que voyez-vors? La tempête sur la mer de Galilée. Rembrandt (What Do You See? Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Rembrandt) (detail), 2013, framed C-print, framed text, each 26 3/4 x 39 3/4".

Sophie Calle, Que voyez-vors? La tempête sur la mer de Galilée. Rembrandt (What Do You See? Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Rembrandt) (detail), 2013, framed C-print, framed text, each 26 3/4 x 39 3/4".

Sophie Calle

Perrotin | Paris, Saint Claude

Sophie Calle, Que voyez-vors? La tempête sur la mer de Galilée. Rembrandt (What Do You See? Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Rembrandt) (detail), 2013, framed C-print, framed text, each 26 3/4 x 39 3/4".

“What do you see?” To staff and visitors of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where more than a dozen objects and works of art were stolen in March 1990, Sophie Calle recently posed this simple question. Gardner’s will stipulates that the arrangement of works in her namesake museum’s galleries never be altered, so for several years after the theft, patches of bare, silk-covered walls punctuated the collection. As early as one year after the theft, Calle included remembrances of works missing from this Boston institution in her series “Last Seen,” 1991. A few years later, the museum rehung the empty frames that once surrounded four of the missing pictures—discarded by the thieves, they are relics of the purloined works. For Calle, this gesture presented a compelling situation; now, as she recently explained, “the absence was totally framed.” Calle’s series “Que voyez-vous?” (What Do You See?), 2013, features unframed photographs of single figures looking at the vacant frames, the back of each head ironically enclosed by the structure’s gilded geometry. The chorus of responses to Calle’s question completes the visual diptych in a gold-framed sheet of black text on paper.

Along with “Que voyez-vous?,” this exhibition, titled “Dérobés” (Purloined), included a selection of Calle’s photographic and text pieces from the series of the same name, begun in 1993 —works that likewise address the absence left by plundered paintings. Calle asked staff from the institutions where the artworks were taken to draw on their unique memories and describe the missing images. In Paris, works from this series were hung in a narrow, vermilion-walled gallery, a dramatic backdrop recalling the rich palette of Renaissance reliquaries. The words Calle has collected in response to her questions reflect both longing and indifference. A range of observers—casual visitors, museum guards, curators—voice contradictory statements, waxing descriptive, imaginative, or judgmental. Calle is concerned with not only what one sees but how we describe it, a question of translation that is found in many of her projects over the years, including “Les Aveugles” (The Blind), 1986, in which the artist asked people without sight to describe beauty. Here, she foregrounded the primary experience of the lost or damaged artworks, as well as the dramatic immediacy of her own art, while at the same time turning our attention to the interpretive framework that a piece enters when it is reproduced through the fragile medium of language. While the words of Calle’s interlocutors remain in the recollected artworks’ absence, the gaps in description, the uncertainties of contradictory statements, and the inevitable slips in transcription and translation yield an amorphous and subjective record.

Calle’s work is at once intimate and theatrical. The photographs for “Que voyez-vous?,” mounted behind Plexiglas, reflect each viewer’s hovering presence, a juxtaposition with the painting’s glowing absence. Faced with the frame of Vermeer’s small, enigmatic work The Concert, ca. 1664, one respondent says, “The chalk line they put around the body—that’s what the frame is to me.” Among the recollections of a striking Rembrandt from 1633, included in Calle’s work Last Seen (Rembrandt, Portrait d’un couple) (Last Seen [Rembrandt, a Lady and Gentleman in Black]), 1991, a work that was not in the show, one person explains that X-ray examination revealed there had once been a child between the two somber figures, holding his mother’s hand. As Calle revisits the space left by the enigmatic double portrait in Que voyez-vous? Portrait d’un couple, Rembrandt (What Do You See? A Lady and Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt), 2013, the erased presence lingers: An anonymous voice declares, “All I can see is that ghost, that missing child, between the man and the woman.”

The most stirring work of the series, Que voyez-vous? La voyante (What Do You See? The Clairvoyant), 2013, was realized with the help of clairvoyant Maud Kristen. Her visions are mounted below a photograph capturing Calle’s own shadow as it falls, by flashlight, on the sage damask walls and an ornate frame at the Gardner. The psychic declares: “Ghosts fill the frame, as if the theft had freed the characters. . . . They have . . . the pleasure of living one’s life without being seen.”

Lillian Davies