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Lecture Notes: Sophie Calle, an artist of absences



Sophie Calle is an artist to attached to absences. Once, for an installation titled Ghost, at New Yorks Museum of Modem Art, she had several paintings from the permanent collection taken down. In their place she installed drawings and descriptions of the missing artwork made by museum workers--from janitors to curators. For another piece, she asked 23 blind people to put their ideas of beauty into words, then photographed their faces. A photo series begun in 1976 in a California cemetery documents generic tombstones whose inscriptions read "Mother," "Father," "Brother," "Sister." She vacated her bed for a week in 1979 and photographed a succession of strangers she had invited to occupy it in eight-hour shifts.

Calle, a Parisian who has exhibited from Tasmania to Santa Monica, transforms evidence--photos, diaries, even the rind of an orange--into art. She once trailed a stranger to Venice. In disguise she tracked his movements, then she published her notes on him in a small book in 1983. Another time, she found an address book on a Paris street and photocopied its contents before mailing it back to its owner. Calle constructed a portrait of that man by interviewing people listed in the book. She collected material for another piece by working as a hotel chambermaid. She read a guest's diary and photographed orange peels in his wastebasket. "He is gone," she notes in her 1981 installation Hotel. "He has left his orange peels, three fresh eggs on the windowsill, and the remains of a croissant which I polish off. I shall miss him."

"In most of my work there is one lie," Calle revealed in a 1990 interview. Like she made up her voyeuristic adventures? Calle once claimed to have commissioned an actual detective to record her daily routine for a 1981 piece called The Shadow. But she declined to be interviewed for this story and told an intermediary that she would never discuss her work over the phone. Nonetheless, Calle will speak to a room of strangers about her art on Wednesday, March 9, at 6 PM in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Admission is $3, free for seniors and students. For information call 443-3711.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joachim Magrean.

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