I was intrigued by the poster for the Sophie Calle exhibition long before the exhibition opened at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) on 22 June. The poster shows the artist herself gazing directly at the camera with a calm, cool, almost nonchalant expression. Left hand screens left eye. The wry half-smile that protrudes from behind her palm and the bold streak of black eyeliner evokes an image of quiet confidence which is somewhat disconcerting. What is Sophie Calle looking at? What exactly can she see? And what is she concealing?
With her unabashed and entirely unapologetic gaze, Calle asserts her fascination with the diversity of human nature, and this has earned her a reputation as something of a voyeur over the years. This voyeuristic inclination is visible in much of the work on display at IMMA, in particular Cash machine, which consists of photographs taken from ATM surveillance cameras.
Here is an artist who relishes catching people off-guard, and one who has no intention of averting her gaze. Yet, if Calle is looking at us then we are also looking at Calle. The question, M’as-tu vue? (‘did you see me?’), which accompanies the exhibition, is easily reversible; did I see you? As her eye follows us from the poster, our eyes scan her profile, examining her features; her hair, her face, her fingers. This examination extends to a voracious absorption of letters, e-mails, personal photographs and intimate confessions within the exhibition itself. We, the viewers, thus become the voyeurs. This simple, subtle paradox is what intrigued me about the poster. In the paradox lies the strength of the exhibition on the whole.
By standing behind and, simultaneously, exposing herself to the lens, Sophie Calle demonstrates an implicit awareness that her perspective is simply one of many. The themes of optics and perspective are indeed important to her work. The poster, again, introduces us to these themes and provokes questions that become inherent to a greater understanding of the exhibition. Is Sophie Calle’s vision impaired by looking through one eye? Would removing her left hand change her perspective on the sight that captures her attention? Her name is printed with the letters gradually decreasing in size, in the style of an eye test, emphasising the deficiency of human perception. In order to produce a rounder picture then, in her work, she interweaves her own perception of certain experiences with those of others.
In her road movie, No sex last night (1992) (on show each Sunday afternoon in IMMA), both Calle and Greg Shepherd give distinct accounts of their trip together across the United States. At no stage in the film is one account given precedence over the other, even when respective accounts of the same incident are at odds. We all view the world through different lenses and to peer momentarily through the lenses of another can be enlightening and often surprising. It is only then that we realise the limits of our own perspective.
This theme re-emerges in Exquisite pain, where Calle directly addresses the subject of blindness, foresight and hindsight. This work charts the lead-up to and the process of recovery from a difficult and unexpected break-up. In the countdown to the moment of exquisite pain, which Calle anticipated as a moment of passionate reunion, she describes and photographs her visits to various clairvoyants, looking forward to the ‘happy’ future rather than enjoying the present. It is only in hindsight that we can appreciate the bitter irony of this.
Rather than once again attempting the physical impossibility of seeing into the future in the third part of the triptych, Calle discovers the rewards of looking beyond one’s own sphere, of looking at different perspectives. So, multiple other perspectives on unhappiness are placed side by side with Calle’s own expression of intense unhappiness in Exquisite Pain and this contributes to her recovery. What is exquisite pain then? Calle is careful to include a footnoted dictionary definition: ‘MOD. Med. Intense, Highly localised pain’. Yet definitions cannot be boxed in so simplistic a manner. ‘Exquisite pain’ is shown to have a vast range of meanings and an infinite number of manifestations. It is apt that the various accounts are stitched onto fabric illustrating, the minute intricacies that produce an apparently seamless surface and also reflecting the manner in which Calle’s narrative weaves in and out of other narratives. It takes many threads to weave a fabric, but even then Calle is conscious that the fabric she has woven may be incomplete. What is exquisite pain? What is not exquisite pain? This second question is perhaps the more important but there are no conclusive answers to either.
In this way, boundaries start to break down. Calle inhabits a world where traditional rules can be breached. For this reason, she is difficult to categorise within a particular genre. She has experimented in a variety of art forms, from film to photography, from writing to performance, and she brings all of this to bear on her work. As I was wandering through the exhibition, I overheard an interesting conversation in which a girl expressed scepticism as to the authenticity of some of the pieces on display in Bedroom (2003). This, to me, is beside the point. In this exhibition, the lines between fact and fiction, between the real and the imaginary, are blurred. We cannot say where one ends and the other begins. For example, what does it matter if certain stories are contrived, if the emotions expressed, whether in photograph, film or text, are sincere?
Ultimately, the boundary between artist and viewer disintegrates. The viewer becomes an active participant. As I mentioned earlier, the viewer becomes Calle’s accomplice, engaging in the voyeurism for which she herself became known. Christine Macel, in an essay in the exhibition catalogue, explores Calle’s seeming rejection of certain post-structuralist theories, such as the death of the
Her work confirms that aesthetic thought cannot do without both subject and author, and that you cannot shrug off either so easily . 
In fact, in Calle’s work, the author at times becomes the subject. The Shadow, 1985, and Twenty years later show the artist as the subject of respective detective enquiries. She gives herself up as creative material and the viewer is invited to interact imaginatively with this material.
With the collapse of the boundary between artist and viewer, the process of production itself becomes artwork. Calle is very open about the origins of her ideas and how these ideas come to fruition or, conversely, fail to take shape. Indeed, this process becomes a journey, an experience. Unfinished is explicitly concerned with the process of creative production and the difficulties that can arise on the way. An artist can never anticipate where a particular road will lead and can easily stumble into a cul-de-sac. Yet, on the whole, there is a strong sense of progression and flux in Calle’s work. Many of the photographs in Exquisite pain were taken while the artist was travelling to Japan and depict flashes of scenery from train windows, letters, hotel rooms and tickets. The sense of motion in these photographs underline the thematic journey, in the triptych, from happiness to unhappiness and back to happiness again.
I began this review by considering the poster that accompanied the exhibition and I find myself making a circular journey back to this poster in order to conclude (no doubt influenced by Exquisite pain !). As I said, Calle’s name is printed in the likeness of an eye test and, as a consequence, the first two letters of her name are highlighted: ‘S O’. The English word, ‘so’, has many meanings. By foregrounding such a short, sharp but multidimensional word in bold, the poster is given an edge that is not lost in the exhibition. I am aware that the exhibition was originally conducted in French, but also that Calle enjoys playing with her name. An artist who finds inspiration in unpremeditated experiences and coincidences would, I believe, be pleasantly surprised by this ‘accident’ of translation, if she has not already noticed it. The word ‘so’ often comes mid-sentence, implying inconclusiveness and expectation but also a sense of movement and change. Occasionally, the word is used to accentuate or to heighten an emotion or an expression. However, ‘so’ in itself can also be a potent statement of defiance, and this meaning of the word has the strongest resonances. For an artist who refuses to be pinned down or hemmed in by set boundaries, such a subtle statement of defiance is entirely appropriate.
Emily Ridge is studying English at Trinity College, Dublin.
[ 1] Christine Macel, Sophie Calle – M’as-tu vue, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2003, p. 28