Interview with Sophie Calle

Posted: Fri Oct 23 2009

When artist Sophie Calle received an email ending her relationship she chose to make it the focus of a multimedia installation titled 'Take Care of Yourself'. Ossian Ward talks to her about this and other works.

'I received the email telling me it was over while walking around Berlin a few years ago,' says Sophie Calle of the unceremonious break-up that became the centre of her expansive investigation into post-relationship deception and anxiety. She sent the message to friends and then to other women in as many different professions as she could, including a forensic psychologist, a crossword puzzler, a school teacher, as well as a sharpshooter, a dancer and even a cartoonist (not to mention pals like Laura Anderson, Carla Bruni and Miranda Richardson).

The resulting multimedia installation, 'Take Care of Yourself', not only echoes the closing words of this letter but rips apart every phrase - sometimes literally, as in the case of the magician, who then conjures it back together again. The first retrospective of French conceptualist Calle's work in the UK, 'Talking to Strangers', showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until Jan 3 2010, begins back in 1979 with 'Sleepers', for which she invited 29 people to sleep in her bed as she watched, and 'The Bronx', in which she asked homeless people simply to take her to their favourite place so that she could photograph them. She's been following, prying into and revealing, the lives of herself and others ever since.

What makes you talk to strangers?
'I started following them before talking to them, mainly because I didn't know what to do with my life. I was in Paris, without a job or any real energy to decide where to go in the morning, so I started to shadow people. Then I was taken by the pleasure of it and started to take photos and notes without consciously knowing why.'

Didn't you get frightened, especially when making 'The Bronx'?
'That was 1979, so I would be lying if I told you what my emotions were then because I must have fabricated one million memories of it, but I guess I was excited because it was my first real show and afraid because the neighbourhood was dangerous.'

Isn't that the kind of thing your parents tell you never to do?
'I had a very unconventional, let's say original, childhood and the wildest mother, who was always centre stage. They pushed me out to talk to strangers.'

I know your mother died, because of the piece here, 'Couldn't Capture Death', about the last moments of her life. It's one of the most uncomfortable films I have ever seen…
'It was made as a homage to her, although initially I installed the camera because I didn't want to miss her last words while I was cooking in the kitchen or going to the shops. I wanted to be sure I would be there. Then the camera became a friend and could be in the room when I wasn't, she could talk to it, and I became fixated on making sure the tape wouldn't run out instead of counting how many more minutes she had to live. If she hadn't had such a soft death, then I wouldn't have done it.'

You are also central to much of your work, is that fair to say?
'I do the work and I'm in it, but many times I'm not the subject. I'm recording, organising the ritual and watching, but what I do is art - it's not a blog, a diary or therapy. If I am depressed I go to buy a dress or take a trip with my boyfriend. When I did this road movie “No Sex Last Night” [with American photographer Greg Shephard, whom she marries halfway through in Las Vegas] we filmed 60 hours but only used one. We could have made 50 different films but we chose the opposite. So I wouldn't say my work is autobiographical, but I can say it happened. I'm not trying to tell the truth about myself but using my life more like a motor for something.'

When Paul Auster gave you his 'Personal Instructions on How to Improve Life in New York City' (that included smiling or talking to strangers) that became the 'Gotham Handbook' of 1994, you were certainly not yourself…
'Initially, I wanted to become the heroine of a book [the fictional character Maria in Auster's 1992 novel 'Leviathan' is based on Calle] but it didn't go in the direction that I wanted because he had another game in mind for me.'

Your collaboration more often involves others doing the work for you, especially in 'Take Care of Yourself'…
'Yes, but I took the pictures and edited their responses. The heart of the idea was that I didn't know how to interpret that letter. Do I answer back? Do I beg him? Do I disappear? So I asked other women to tell me what they read, speaking with their vocabulary and from their professional point of view. The answer is made of the accumulation.'

What was the reaction from the subject? Did he see it as revenge?
'I had to be clear about that with myself, that it was a work of art, not of revenge. At the beginning he said that he didn't like being the victim of the idea but that he respected it, which I thought was very generous. The project became better than my life with him, so once I saw the possibilities of the work I began to pray that he wouldn't come back, even though I was still very much in love. Actually we became very friendly because of it all.'

Was that the closure you needed? There are 107 women in the piece and you might never have stopped…
'No in fact, as soon as I began to count it was over a hundred and actually the last one appeared just before we had to close the project. The singer Peaches phoned me and said she'd do it, but only if I'd come to Berlin, so just as it started in Berlin it finished in Berlin. Generally the end comes by itself.'