Sophie Calle in Bozar: striptease artist, cannibal, or Alice In Wonderland’s little sister?
‘My cat went nuts.’ That was her opening line. We had never met before. And then she continued, rather casually: ‘It was bound to happen. Everyone goes crazy, around me.’ I suddenly remembered that weird conversation, at a Brussels’ party years ago, as I was watching a picture of three dead cats by Sophie Calle, in Bozar. How would life look like as Calle’s partner, I wondered, as I was standing in the last room of the exhibition of this French artist, just having seen twenty of her autobiographical projects. Do Calle’s cats go crazy too?
‘Take a look at the objects in this room. It may not be much, but it is enough to be stupefied.’ I am leaning against a wall, listening to a voice coming from a tiny little speaker. All over the Sophie Calle-retrospective in Bozar in Brussels the walls have these speakers, with comments by French actor/tv-producer Frédéric Mitterrand. ‘Sophie Calle is a well-organised predator’, he warns. ‘She’s a witch. And can one love a witch?’
I’m standing in the first room of this exhibition. And I’m trying to get used to Calle’s universe. I see pictures telling the story of the day Calle buried her mother’s jewellery on the North Pole. And pictures of the day a clairvoyant’s cards sent her to the French village Berck. Photographs and text, that’s the way Sophie Calle tells her stories, in which she mixes personal life and artistic fiction. Be prepared: getting to know Calle, takes a lot of reading. Visiting this exhibition takes time.
In the next rooms I read about the night she spent at the Eiffel-tower, asking people to tell her a 5 minute-story. Or about the letter she wrote the American author Paul Auster, asking him to invent a fictional character whom she would try to resemble. I read about the address book she found, and her decision to contact the people in it because she wanted to know more about its owner. I read about Calle asking people to give her a few hours of their sleep: in Calle’s bed. And I see a bit of the film she and her lover made, when they had stopped talking to each other.
‘Sophie Calle is an intellectual striptease artist’, Fréderic Mitterrand whispers in my ear, in the very last room. ‘A cannibal who feeds herself with other people’s emotions. An innocent manipulator. Alice In Wonderland’s little sister.’ He’s right. She’s all of that. Some of her projects made me smile. Other ones I cared less about. I was most intrigued by the projects in which Calle tries to capture the ineffable. Like the death of her mother. ‘Ne vous faites pas de souci’, were her mother’s last words. ‘Don’t worry.’ And so you’ll see canvases with just that word: souci. Or the project in which Calle tries to capture her sadness, when her lover has broken up with her over the phone. Just to counterbalance her sadness, she started asking people to tell her their stories of grief.
Entering Calle’s world sure is an intriguing venture. But there’s one really annoying thing, though: all of this is in French. Mitterrand’s voice is in French too. Out of respect for the artist nothing has been done to change that, Bozar says. It’s a pity. Because the little booklet you can pick up at the entrance with texts in Dutch and English is not enough. More should have been done draw those who don’t speak French that well into Sophie’s world. Now, I’m sure, many will feel shut out. And that’s too bad.
Upon leaving Bozar, I saw a dog sitting in the middle of the street, on the zebra crossing. Neither its boss, nor the cars honking could make it move. When you’ve been to Sophie Calle, the world does look a bit different, afterwards.
At Bozar (Brussels), until September 13.
(photo credits: Kleinefenn)
Lourdes-photo: ‘Où et quand? Lourdes’ (2005-2008), Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perotin (Paris/Miami), Arndt & Partner (Berlin/Zürich)