Sophie Calle

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Sophie Calle
Sophie Calle y Alexandra Cohen.jpg
Sophie Calle (left) and Alexandra Cohen
Born 9 October 1953 (1953-10-09) (age 63)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Known for Conceptual art, installation art

Sophie Calle (born 9 October 1953) is a French writer, photographer, installation artist, and conceptual artist. Calle's work is distinguished by its use of arbitrary sets of constraints, and evokes the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability, and examines identity and intimacy. She is recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her photographic work often includes panels of text of her own writing.

Since 2005 Sophie Calle has taught as a professor of film and photography at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. She has lectured at the University of California, San Diego in the Visual Arts Department.[1] She has also taught at Mills College in Oakland, California. Exhibitions featuring the work of Sophie Calle took place at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia,[2] at Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris,[3] at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, USA, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium; Videobrasil, SESC Pompeia, São Paulo, Brazil; Museum of Modern Art of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, UK; and the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, The Netherlands.[4]



After completing her schooling she travelled for seven years. When she returned to Paris in 1979 she began a series of projects to acquaint herself again both with the city and people of Paris and with herself. However, she soon discovered that observing the behaviour and actions of these strangers provided information with which to construct their identities. These sought to construct identities by offering documentary ‘proof' in the form of photographs. Her work was seen to have roots in the tradition of conceptual art because the emphasis was on the artistic idea rather than the finished object. The French writer Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay (1988) that described this project in terms of a reciprocal loss of will on the part of both pursued and pursuer.[5]

In Suite Venitienne (1979), Calle followed a man she met at a party in Paris to Venice, where she disguised herself and followed him around the city, photographing him. Calle’s surveillance of the man, who she identifies only as Henri B., includes black and white photographs accompanied by text.[6]

Calle's first artistic work was The Sleepers (Les Dormeurs), a project in which she invited passers-by to occupy her bed.[7] Some were friends, or friends of friends, and some were strangers to her. She served them food and photographed them every hour.

Another project, entitled The Shadow (1981) and displayed in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle's request) by her mother. It was, in Calle's words, an attempt 'to provide photographic evidence of my own existence'. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Aware of her follower, she also wrote about her experience in frequent journal entries throughout the day. Such projects, with their suggestions of intimacy, also questioned the role of the spectator, with viewers often feeling a sense of unease as they became the unwitting collaborators in these violations of privacy. Moreover, the deliberately constructed and thus in one sense artificial nature of the documentary ‘evidence' used in Calle's work questioned the nature of all truths.

In order to execute her project The Hotel (1981), she was hired as a chambermaid at a hotel in Venice where she was able to explore the writings and objects of the hotel guests. Insight into her process and its resulting aesthetic can be gained through her account of this project: "I spent one year to find the hotel, I spent three months going through the text and writing it, I spent three months going through the photographs, and I spent one day deciding it would be this size and this's the last thought in the process."[8]

Mid- and late 1980s[edit]

One of Calle's first projects to generate public controversy was Address Book (1983). The French daily newspaper Libération invited her to publish a series of 28 articles. Having recently found an address book on the street (which she photocopied and returned to its owner), she decided to call some of the telephone numbers in the book and speak with the people about its owner. To the transcripts of these conversations, Calle added photographs of the man's favorite activities, creating a portrait of a man she never met, by way of his acquaintances. The articles were published, but upon discovering them, the owner of the address book, a documentary filmmaker named Pierre Baudry, threatened to sue the artist for invasion of privacy. As Calle reports, the owner discovered a nude photograph of her, and demanded the newspaper publish it, in retaliation for what he perceived to be an unwelcome intrusion into his private life.

Another of Calle's noteworthy projects is titled The Blind (1986), for which she interviewed blind people, and asked them to define beauty. Their responses were accompanied by her photographic interpretation of their ideas of beauty, and portraits of the interviewees.[9]

Calle has created elaborate display cases of birthday presents given to her throughout her life; this process was detailed by Grégoire Bouillier in his memoir The Mystery Guest: An Account (2006). According to Bouillier, the premise of his story was that "A woman who has left a man without saying why calls him years later and asks him to be the 'mystery guest' at a birthday party thrown by the artist Sophie Calle. And by the end of this fashionable—and utterly humiliating—party, the narrator figures out the secret of their breakup."[10]

She is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour using techniques akin to those of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. It has also led her to investigate her own behaviour so that her life, as lived and as imagined, has informed many of her most interesting works.


In 1996, Calle asked Israelis and Palestinians from Jerusalem to take her to public places that became part of their private sphere, exploring how one's personal story can create an intimacy with a place. Inspired by the eruv, the Jewish law that permits to turn a public space into a private area by surrounding it with wires, making it possible to carry objects during the Sabbath, the Erouv de Jérusalem is exposed at Paris's Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme.

The same year, Calle released a film titled No Sex Last Night which she created in collaboration with American photographer Gregory Shephard. The film documents their road trip across America, which ends in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas. Rather than following the genre conventions of a road trip or a romance, the film is designed to document the result of a man and woman who barely knew each other, embarking on an intimate journey together.

Calle asked writer and filmmaker Paul Auster to "invent a fictive character which I would attempt to resemble"[11] and served as the model for the character Maria in Auster’s novel Leviathan (1992). This mingling of fact and fiction so intrigued Calle that she created the works of art created by the fictional character, which included a series of color-coordinated meals.

Auster later challenged Calle to create and maintain a public amenity in New York City. The artist's response was to augment a telephone booth on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison Streets in Manhattan with a note pad, a bottle of water, a pack of cigarettes, flowers, cash, and sundry other items. Everyday, Calle cleaned the booth and restocked the items, until the telephone company removed and discarded them. This project is documented in The Gotham Handbook (1998).[11]

In 1999 Calle exhibited the installation "Appointment" especially conceived for the Freud Museum in London, working with the ideas of her private desires. In Room with a View (2002), Calle spent the night in a bed installed at the top of the Eiffel Tower. She invited people to come to her and read her bedtime stories in order to keep her awake through the night. The same year, Calle had her first one-woman show at the Musée National d'Art Moderne at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.


"Douleur Exquise" (exquisite pain) was commissioned in 2003. She reluctantly chose to spend three months in Japan, deciding to make the journey take a month by taking the train through Moscow and through Siberia, then through Beijing, then to Hong Kong. She was supposed to meet her lover in New Delhi, but he didn't turn up, instead sending her a telegram which said he was in an accident and couldn't come. She found out that he only had an infected finger, a felon, and that he had actually found another woman. She took a photograph every day until the day they were supposed to meet in New Delhi, and wrote about how much she looked forward to meeting him. The second half of the book was all about the pain of the heartbreak. She would write about the horrible memory of the conversation where she realized he was breaking up with her on one page, and ask people to tell her their worst memory, which was placed on the right. Over the days, her story became shorter and shorter as her pain dissipated over the time. The juxtaposition of everyone’s terrible memories also played down the pain of a simple breakup.

Calle's text Exquisite Pain was adapted into a performance in 2004 by Forced Entertainment, a theatrical company based in Sheffield, England.

At the 2007 Venice Biennale, Sophie Calle showed her piece Take Care of Yourself, named after the last line of the email her ex sent her. Calle asked friends, acquaintances, and recommended women of all ages—including a parrot and a hand puppet—to interpret the break-up e-mail and presented the results in the French pavilion.[12] Calle explains the piece as follows: "I received an email telling me it was over. I didn't know how to respond. It was almost as if it hadn't been meant for me. It ended with the words, 'take care of yourself.' And so I did. I asked 107 women, chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter. To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me. It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way of taking care of myself."[13] Jessica Lott, winner of the Frieze Writer's Prize for her review of the piece, described it thus: "Take Care of Yourself is a break-up letter (Calle's) then-boyfriend (Grégoire Bouillier, dubbed ‘X’) sent her via e-mail. Calle took the e-mail, and the paralyzing confusion that accompanies the mind’s failure to comprehend heartbreak, and distributed it to 107 women of various professions, skills and talents to help her understand it – to interpret, analyze, examine and perform it to gain perspective on her perplexing situation. Calle insists that she did not need the other women's sentiments for herself, but to ensure that the piece was well-rounded.[14] The result of this seemingly obsessive, schoolyard exercise is paradoxically one of the most expansive and telling pieces of art on women and contemporary feminism to pass through (the major art centres) in recent years".[15] [16] At her gallery shows, Calle frequently supplies suggestion forms on which visitors are encouraged to furnish ideas for her art, while she sits beside them with an uninterested expression.

In November 2008, she participated in an exhibition "Système C, un festival de coincidence" proposed by the Stéréotypes Associés in Mains d'Oeuvres, Paris.[citation needed]

In October 2009, a major exhibition of her works, including Take Care of Yourself, The Sleepers, Address Book and others, opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. In 2010 another major exhibition opened in Denmark at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.[17]


In 2011 her work True Stories was installed at the historic 1850 House at the Pontalba Building at Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana as part of the Prospect 2 Contemporary Art Festival. The house, an historic museum that is managed as part of the Louisiana State Museum, is furnished with historic furniture as it was in the mid-19th century. The artist inserted her own, personal historical objects and ephemera, with short, narrative explanatory text, into the scenes, affecting the notion that she had occupied the house shortly before the viewers' arrival.

In 2012, Calle's The Address Book was published for the first time in its entirety.[18] In 2015, Suite Vénitienne was redesigned and republished.[19]

Critical analysis[edit]

Christine Macel described Calle's work as a rejection of the Poststructuralist notion of the "death of the author" by working as a "first-person artist" who incorporates her life into her works and, in a way, redefines the idea of the author.[20]

Cultural references[edit]

In 2001 an Australian art student Vienna Parreno legally changed her name by deed-poll to Sophie Calle and exhibited several recreations of Calle's photographs and installations in her graduation show at the College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW in Sydney. Her artist statement said that she did not know what to do with herself.[citation needed]


  • Sophie Calle, Double Game, with the participation of Paul Auster, Violette Editions, 1999. ISBN 1-900828-06-5
  • Sophie Calle, M'as tu vue. Centre Pompidou & Edition Xavier Baral, 2003.
  • Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain, Thames and Hudson, 2004. ISBN 0-500-51198-5
  • Sophie Calle, Appointment, Thames and Hudson in association with Violette Editions, 2005. ISBN 978-0-500-51199-2
  • Sophie Calle & Fabio Balducci, En finir. Actes Sud, 2005.
  • Sophie Calle, Double Game, with the participation of Paul Auster (2nd edition), Violette Editions, 2007. ISBN 978-1-900828-28-4
  • Sophie Calle, The Address Book, Siglio, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9799562-9-4
  • Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne, Siglio, 2015. ISBN 978-1-938221-09-5


  1. ^ Sophie Calle. 2009 Russel Lecture. [University of California, San Diego]. Visual Arts Department and MCASD. January 15, 2009
  2. ^ Program of the festival Centre Pompidou in the State Hermitage Museum. Hermitage 20/21 Project. October/November 2010
  3. ^ Sophie Calle. Public Places – Private Space. Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Paris. March 7, 2001- June 28, 2001
  4. ^ Sophie Calle. Questionnaire. Frieze Magazine. June–August 2009
  5. ^ Copyright material reproduced courtesy of Oxford University Press, New York, Grove Art Online
  6. ^ Bois, Yve-Alain, "Character Study: Sophie Calle." Artforum, April, 2000, pp. 126–31.
  7. ^ Sophie Calle, M'as-tu vue. Munich: Prestel Publishing. 2003. p. 15. ISBN 3-7913-3035-7. 
  8. ^ Hanhardt, John G. et al., Moving Pictures: Contemporary Photography and Video from the Guggenheim Collection. (Hardcover) Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (2003)
  9. ^ Sophie Calle, M'as-tu vue. Munich: Prestel Publishing. 2003. p. 377. ISBN 3-7913-3035-7. 
  10. ^ "Experiential Lit: Grégoire Bouillier with Yann Nicol Translated by Violaine Huisman and Lorin Stein". 
  11. ^ a b Auster, Paul et al., Doubles-jeux: Gotham Handbook, livre VII. (Paperback) Actes Sud, 1998
  12. ^ Interview Magazine October 2014
  13. ^ "Sophie Calle". 
  14. ^ Interview Magazine
  15. ^ Jessica Lott (2009), Sophie Calle, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, USA, Frieze, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  16. ^ Neri, Louise. “Sophie Calle.” Interview Magazine, date unknown. Web. 22 October 2014.
  17. ^
  18. ^ "The Address Book". Siglio Press. 
  19. ^ "Suite Vénitienne". Siglio Press. 
  20. ^ Sophie Calle, M'as-tu vue. Munich: Prestel Publishing. 2003. p. 17. ISBN 3-7913-3035-7. 


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