In advance of Missing, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s first major retrospective in the United States, both New York Times Magazine and the Guardian published lengthy profiles of the famously capricious artist. The former used a photo of her “giving birth” to a plush cat from a fake pregnant belly (there’s a backstory, of course, which ties into Calle’s childlessness and her cat’s recent death). And both pieces mention that Calle lives with a massive stuffed giraffe head named after her mother – the Guardian even offers up a photo of the two.
Missing has since opened at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco, a repurposed old army post that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. The show features four of Calle’s most acclaimed works from her decades-long career. Among them is Rachel Monique (2007), an immersive installation dedicated to the memory of Calle’s mother. This iteration occupies a chapel on a hill overlooking the campus. Inside, a video of Calle’s mother’s last living moments plays in the pulpit, while framed excerpts from her mother’s diary decorate the walls. A version of that named giraffe hangs in the center, reigning over the pews.
When it comes to Calle, this air of eccentricity is part of the appeal. The cumulative effect of her work is to create a character out of its author, and the performances she gives to the press function as a kind of invisible – but essential – scaffolding for the pieces on display.
The giraffe, it seems, is simply part of that mythology that made it into the installation: only one example of the autobiographical theatrics that do little more than inflate a sense of Sophie Calle’s character as odd, in an affluent and alluring way. In the past, that approach has successfully charmed. But in 2017, it’s increasingly unclear whether the “why not” attitude that inspires her whimsical endeavors sufficiently answers the question of “why?”
One of the exhibition’s most striking, yet ultimately hollow, pieces, Voir la Mer (2011), is installed in the campus’s converted fire house, projected onto four walls. To create it, Calle arranged for working class Istanbul residents to visit the ocean for the first time, and filmed their silent, awed expressions. Entering the installation, viewers must first pass through a small room lined with tall windows that stop just above eye level. Right below them, vinyl script reads: I went to Istanbul, a city surrounded by water. I met people who had never seen the sea. And just under the words sits a wooden stepping stool that invites visitors to take their own deliberate view to the water.
Calle pointed out after the press opening that the French word for “mother” is a homophone for “sea.” Struck by the oceanic motif, which is enhanced by the setting, I inquired: “What is your relationship to the ocean?” Hiding behind a pair of large round sunglasses, Calle answered: “I have none.” She simply heard that people existed in Istanbul who had never seen the sea, she said. So, she took them.
This logic of spontaneity and whimsy is the basis of Calle’s body of work. To great effect, she has honed the corresponding image – that of the artworld’s own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whose art is also performed as an approach to life. Literal, romantic, sexy, and self-reflexive, Calle works in a language of archetypes and tropes, which imbues her practice with universality. And she executes it well.
Voir la Mer is undoubtedly affecting. The few symbols and concepts it employs are vast and poetic in a way that feels both monolithic and simple. As you stand in the center of a four-channel projection with the amplified sound of the ocean washing over you and watch tears well in the eyes of Turkish strangers, it feels like being dropped into the climax of a film. For the American viewer, in particular, the scene functions like an emotional mnemonic for every Hollywood story about a poor foreign family tasting luxury for the first time. The psychic effect is immediate, but it isn’t long-lasting, because the sense of poetry lingers only as long as the imagination is locked in that moment; as long as the subjects remain characters that function within a formula. Such a contrived situation can only prove so profound: all the elements function smoothly, routinely, but lack an essential humanity; the kind of enduring impact imparted by spontaneity.
Take Care of Yourself, which occupied the French pavilion during the 2007 Venice Biennale, is the largest component of Missing. Calle created the piece after receiving a break-up letter from a former boyfriend, signed: “Take care of yourself.” Heartbroken, she asked 107 women of differing professions to assess the letter from the perspective of their trade. The result is a collection of portraits of women reading the note, hung alongside an exhibit of their interpretations. Among them: a tarot reader’s card spread, an attorney’s assessment, several dancers’ choreographies, and a parrot eating a tiny printout of the letter.
It’s an exquisitely photographed series, installed salon-style with pleasing playfulness. But when Take Care debuted a decade ago, it was intriguing largely because of Calle’s willingness to broadcast a personal piece of her life; she insists that a break-up letter is, in fact, utterly banal. Since then, so much has changed about our collective boundaries and expectations of intimacy with people we barely know. The cultural norm has, until recently, been one of compulsive over-sharing. But that’s changing, and Calle’s concept doesn’t land with the same revelation or brazenness that it once did. Today, it’s not quirky or especially amusing that she finds a personal letter’s content banal; for her audience, it’s just accurate.
It’s an odd time for American audiences to be met with a Sophie Calle retrospective. It feels awkwardly belated, and diffused. Without her name ever entering America’s household lexicon, Calle’s artistic influence has seeped into stateside popular culture with significant effect. She played a large role in pushing forward the first-person confessional movement, which manifests across media. Her aesthetic is not dissimilar to that of director Wes Anderson, who traffics in twee. And without Sophie Calle, could we have the auto-fictions of Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, Miranda July?
The logic of Calle’s work has become worn – and even its derivatives have mostly lived out their lives. To an audience of public diarists with necessarily well-trained filters for insincerity, it becomes clear what Calle’s work lacks: a sense of honesty that doesn’t get stalled in exhibitionism – that can cut through the ubiquitous theatrics of social and political life with which we’ve become all too familiar.
Missing successfully illustrates Calle’s enduring ability to rend our hearts, like the composer of a well-written pop song. But beyond the familiarity of her seduction, there isn’t much that remains. As her work ages, its relevance to contemporary life diminishes, along with its capacity to challenge us intellectually. And at a moment when it’s increasingly necessary to be invested in a collective reality, the performance of the personal can appear like an unconscionably saccharine escape.