How Sophie Calle Got Her Start as an Artist
We can thank Sophie Calle for reimagining what conceptual art can be: Not cold, clinical, and cerebral, but rather something empathetic, human, and often titillating. Throughout the course of a long career, the French artist has undertaken projects that involve research, autobiography, and flirtation with ethical boundaries. A typical Calle artwork might involve cautiously stalking and documenting strangers (Suite Vénitienne, 1980, 1996), sharing private emails (Take Care of Yourself, 2007), or installing an homage to her late mother inside an ornate church (“Rachel, Monique,” 2014).
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. So I decided to follow him. Sophie Calle, from the series “Suite Vénitienne,” 1980. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris, & ARS New York, 2019. Courtesy of Perrotin.
Any aspect of her own life is fair game—although, as Calle describes it, this personal material assumes the quality of fiction in the process. Her presentation style is suitably literary: Calle is a prodigious maker of books, and her exhibitions often pair image and text, as if they’re meant to be read as much as experienced. Today, she is a touchstone for younger artists, and famous enough to serve as the inspiration for fiction writers, like Paul Auster.
Calle’s path to art stardom has also been very unconventional, proceeding by chance and happenstance rather than careerist calculation. Rather than owing allegiance to other artists, or famous teachers, she’s more apt to discuss the pivotal influence of her cat or her late father Robert Calle, who was an esteemed art collector and ran the contemporary art museum Carré d’Art in Nîmes, France. Here, she shares some reflections from her earliest days, when artmaking just seemed like one intriguing way to spend a life.
How did you first become interested in art? Do you recall a formative experience that opened your eyes and showed you what was possible?
I don’t remember when I first became interested in art. I was introduced to art by my father, who was interested in it. I wanted to impress him. I looked at his collection, Pop art, but also photographers like Duane Michals. Painting didn’t seem attainable. I already loved writing, but my father’s territory was mostly visual. I had just arrived in Paris after an absence of travelling for seven years. Traveling was “in the air,” something obvious. My last stop had been a small village in California where, for six months, I rented the house of a photographer who taught me how to print … So I thought I could try to add text to pictures, and write for the walls.
Sophie as a young child. Photo by Bob Calle. Courtesy of the artist.
Then, because I was lost in my own city, I started following people in the streets just to give a trajectory to my wandering. And I started making these kind of reports. That’s how it all started. And it worked. I mean, the approval aspect: My father liked it.
When you were starting out, or first thinking of dedicating your life to art, were there any particular artists or artworks that inspired you above all others?
I asked people to give me a few hours of their sleep. To come and sleep in my bed. To each participant I suggested an eight hour stay. The occupation of the bed began on Sunday, April 1, 1979 at 5 p.m. and ended on Monday, April 9, at 10 a.m. Sophie Calle, from the series "The Sleepers", 1979. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2019. Courtesy of Perrotin.
In a way, it was mostly writers. For example, Georges Perec inspired me. My father’s taste was my inspiration: his walls, his house. I knew nothing of museums, the history of art … My first time entering such a place was when I had my first show at the Biennale des Jeunes, in the Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris, in 1980. It was about people I had invited to sleep in my bed over a period of eight days. When they asked me for information for my page in the catalogue—with questions such as “First show? Artistic Education?”—to each question I answered “rien” (“nothing”). I went directly from nothing—no desire, work, or artistic ambition—to the Modern Art Museum. It seemed the right path, even if I had no clue of where it was going, if it was art, and why I was doing this.
When you were first starting out, did it seem feasible that you could actually make a living as an artist?
At the time there was not such anxiety about the future. I don’t think I asked myself that kind of question. I had found something interesting to do and that was already a lot. There were other jobs around for me to make a living.
What sort of jobs?
On Monday February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday March 6, the job came to an end. Sophie Calle, from the series “The Hotel,” 1981. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2019. Courtesy of Perrotin.
During my travels, anything, depending on the country: farming in Mexico, fishing in Greece, waiting tables in New York, modeling for drawing classes, working for a marijuana grower in California. Selling honey and bread in the mountains of Ardeche, picking apples or grapes in the south of France. Dormitory supervisor, saleswoman for vacuum cleaners and for clothes companies. I don’t remember them all. When I came back to Paris: stripper in Pigalle, the best paid of all and the most exciting. I was doing a performance—I worked on the clothes, and the music—but I also worked on my fear, fighting my hesitations.
Were there people early in your career who didn’t appreciate or understand your work, or who were actively critical of it? How did you handle those responses?
Sophie and her father Bob Calle. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Courtesy of the artist.
Sophie Calle, from the series “Suite Vénitienne,” 1980. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris, & ARS New York, 2019. Courtesy of Perrotin.
My parents were exceptional and gave me a strong feeling of security, even if my mother, despite the fact that she was very happy for me, didn’t understand how I could make a living with “that.” She came with me to an opening I had at MoMA in New York and she whispered in my ear: “You really fooled them!” And it was a compliment! So, I am sure I faced critics, but I forgot, and I truly didn’t care. I was protected by my father. If he liked the work, it was a lot, and it was enough. I remember vaguely that, for my first solo show in a photo gallery in Geneva, some photographers created a scandal because they thought my images were not good enough.
People know I lost my parents, my cat, my boyfriend, so what? In the process of turning these experiences into art, they somehow become a type of fiction.
Also, when I first went to New York for a group show in 1980, my father asked me to show my only project (The Sleepers, 1979) to his friends, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, just to receive advice from professional gallerists. I saw Ms. Sonnabend first. In her gallery, she didn’t ask me to sit. Standing at the door of her office, my coat on, I started to explain that I had asked people I didn’t know to sleep in my bed for eight-hour shifts, that I took a photo every hour. I showed two or three images … That’s when she stopped me and said: “I like your father, so I am going to be direct, this is much too intellectual, find something else to do with your life, it was nice to meet you. Goodbye.” The meeting lasted about one or two minutes, max. It is good that I was strong otherwise it could have been devastating. But still, I canceled the Leo Castelli appointment! Thirteen years later he asked to meet me, and became my gallerist in New York.
As a woman artist, do you feel as if you faced sexism or misogyny within the art world, before your career was fully established?
If lady Sonnabend was a misogynist then yes—but no, I can’t say that. I think it is more difficult to be taken seriously as a woman, but I was never stopped because I was a woman. Although I know I was living in a very protected environment, so I am not an example for all women. In a way, if I had been a man, following women in the streets as I did for Suite Vénitienne could have been problematic, and maybe unfamiliar women would have not slept in my bed for The Sleepers? So, being a woman also allowed some of my projects to exist.
You’ve published some stunning artist books, and language and literature are very important to your practice overall. What are some books that you keep returning to, that have changed the way you see the world?
Sophie Calle, album cover for “Souris Calle” © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
I can’t point to a single book, or even a few. Too many things, and not only books, have changed the way I see the world. Anyhow, I have a pathological memory loss, so even if I read the same book three times, it is always the first time.
Many of your works push boundaries—in some cases, they may be seen to infringe on the privacy of others. What sort of ethics do you think an artist needs to abide by? Do you ever think you’ve gone too far with an artwork, or is there no such thing as “too far” when we’re talking about art?
If I show my work, it is because I have decided that I can after asking myself this exact question. The rest—my hesitations, my guilt, eventually the abandonment of some projects—is my problem. I recently wrote a dedication for a publication I am planning in the near future. I dedicated my book “to my bad conscience.” Anyhow, my “too far” changes, depending on my mood, the situation, the year.
At the same time, you’ve also been incredibly willing to expose yourself, to share your own life as part of your work. Does doing so ever leave you feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable?
Sophie Calle, Maternité, 2018. © Jean-Baptiste Mondino. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
First, the projects that use my private life are just a part of my work. With Stolen Paintings, The Blinds, Hotels, I am not the subject, I only act as a shadow. And when I use my own life in my work, I don’t have the feeling of exposing myself: It is just a moment, selected, edited, written ... I expose the break-up letter of a lover, the death of my mother, nothing really “personal.” It is the truth, it happened, but it is not my life. My state of mind, my feelings—all this is absent. People know I lost my parents, my cat, my boyfriend, so what? In the process of turning these experiences into art, they somehow become a type of fiction.
What’s exciting you these days?
Installation view of “Cinq: Le Chasseur français,” at Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Marseille. Photo by Florian Kleinefenn. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris 2019.
I just produced a triple vinyl record about the death of my cat, Souris. It was new and exciting. I showed work in five museums in the same city, Marseille. I chose the Museum of Natural History; the Musée des Beaux Arts; Musée Borély, a museum for ceramics; Musée Grobet-Labadié, a historical house that became a museum; and a chapel, la Chapelle de la Vieille Charité. The game was to mix my works with their collections. I wish to do this in other cities.
Otherwise, I have exhibitions soon in Switzerland, San Francisco, Moscow, and Tokyo.
Something exciting? I’d like to approach theater. Exciting and scary. But I will do this very slowly, because of the fear.