This Artwork Changed My Life: Sophie Calle’s “Exquisite Pain”

Isabelle Davis
Mar 3, 2020 1:00PM

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Imogen West-Knights on Vincent van Gogh’s Two Crabs.

Conceptual artist Sophie Calle and her boyfriend had a trip planned. They would fly—her from Japan, him from France—to New Delhi and meet at the airport. He never arrived. She sat on their hotel bed, trying desperately to get in contact with him. When she did, Calle held the phone in her shaking hand as her boyfriend spoke quietly on the other end. He told her he couldn’t do it—the trip, the relationship, whatever. He hadn’t gotten on the plane. She knew, instinctively, he had met another woman. Calle spent the next month alone, talking to anyone she could get to sit down for a while. In total, she recorded 99 conversations. Calle asked strangers to describe the most painful moments of their lives, and in return she told the story of her breakup—again and again and again.

On day 15, Calle said, “He’s the one I want to talk about. Until I’m up to here with him. Disgusted. He’s the one I have to get rid of.” The man she was speaking with described putting the nails in his grandfather’s coffin. He called it “the worst last look.”

Sophie Calle
Exquisite Pain, 15 days ago, 1984

Calle titled her collection of conversations Exquisite Pain (2003). Each piece includes text from her part of each conversation, with the photo that she took after the breakup—a sad hotel bed with a bright-red telephone—and the stories of the strangers, with their own photos. When she finished the recordings, Calle seemed to be done talking about the breakup. She put the work in a museum, turned it into a book, and then, when she finished showing it, she put it in a box. She had tired of the story.

When I first saw Exquisite Pain, I knew it already. My boyfriend and I also had a trip planned. The day he ended it with me, he booked us a hotel room in St. Louis. He only became my boyfriend after we broke up. When something ends and it causes you heartbreak like that, it deserves a traditional label, so everyone knows what you’re talking about when you explain it—which I did, over and over again. When he ended things between us, we went on our trip anyway.

Afterwards, I talked about it incessantly: the trip, the sex, the breakup, the way I hurt. I always talked about us incessantly, but this took it to another level. I heard myself and I couldn’t stop it. I simply told the same stories again and again. I sighed into my phone, “Heartbreak is the most boring emotion on Earth.” No one disagreed with me.

Before the relationship ended, he and I made a Google Doc. We filled it with memories we agreed to not make public, or rather, I agreed to not make public—there was no risk of him doing that. We filled it with small things and I read them aloud to my friends after he said something cruel to me, as if begging them to see that we had beautiful moments, too. They nodded, but they’d heard it all before. I found myself stuck on repeat. Reliving moments that stacked themselves on top of each other.

I asked my friend what to do with the items I wanted to add, now, to that Google Doc. “Publish them,” she said. So, I began writing.

I became obsessed with Calle’s work, particularly Exquisite Pain, at the same time that I stopped talking to my ex but couldn’t stop talking about him, and started writing. I wanted what she had: the ability to make art about my hurt until it stopped being painful for me, and instead was just art. I wanted to talk about him so much that it felt like something I’d seen on a TV show, and then maybe I wanted to make the TV show. Art can be critiqued, it can be thought about deeply, it can be considered. But while art moves you, it doesn’t hurt you. Especially if you’re the one who created it.

Sophie Calle
Count Up to Unhappiness: Day 77 - Exquisite Pain , 2000
A3 Arndt Art Agency

On making art about her personal life, Calle has said that “the therapy can be a side profit.” She did not make the work to get through her problems, but it happened anyway. Separately, she’s said, “I had the control to say, ‘Okay, I will stop being moved by this man, or stop being obsessed with him on Monday at five o’clock.’ I had the possibility to create feelings and emotions by ritual, the obsession—to be totally obsessed with someone and to cut it off by decision.”

I read that quote and I wanted it. I wanted to write specifically to get through my problems; the completed product could be my side profit. I sat in my room, typing, thinking, “I will stop being obsessed with my own pain, as it surrounds him, on Tuesday at 11.” It didn’t work, mostly. Until one day, it did. I realized my heart felt just fine. Now when I read what I wrote back then, I am moved, but I am not sad.

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Imogen West-Knights on Vincent van Gogh’s Two Crabs.

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”

Isabelle Davis