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Sophie Calle - Biography

Sophie Calle is a unique and purposefully contentious French artist. She is a writer, photographer, director, installation artist, and conceptual artist of wide renown. Professor Calle has taught at the European Graduate School (EGS) since 2005. There she conducts an intensive seminar on film and photography. She was born on the 9th of October 1953 in Paris. She is the daughter of the famous French oncologist Robert Calle. Significantly, it was partly as a result of inspiration gained from close artist friends of her father’s, most notably Martial Raysse, Arman, and Christian Boltanski, that she decided to become an artist herself.

For over thirty years her work has been about linking her personal life, including some of the most intimate moments of it, to her work. She has done this by using almost all mediums one can thinking, including books, photos, videos, films, performances and more. In fact, in an interview Sophie Calle illustrates the point of the link between her life and her work as follows:

It’s true that when I speak in public, everyone asks me about life and I always have to bring them back to the fact that it’s a work of art. The difference with many of my works is the fact that they are also my life. They happened. This is what sets me apart and makes people strongly like or dislike what I do. It is also why I have a public beyond the art world. I don’t care about truth; I care about art and style and writing and occupying the wall. For me, my writing style is very linked to the fact that it is a work of art on the wall. I had to find a way to write in concise, effective phrases that people standing or walking into a room could read.

More precisely, Sophie 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.

Sophie Calle began working as an artist in the 1970s, after traveling the world for seven years. When she returned to Paris, the city in which she was born, she recalls feeling isolated and lost; this isolation inspired her to investigate the lives of the people around her. Her first photographs were of graves marked simply 'mother' and 'father'.

She has commented on the beginners of her career as follows:

I used to talk to women at the market and one of them came over to sleep in my bed. She was married to an art critic and he visited my house and then invited me to exhibit at the Biennale des Jeunes. Suddenly, I found myself showing at the Museum of Modern Art. My work became art the day it was shown on the wall.

Sophie Calle completed her first artwork shortly after her return to Paris, inviting forty-five friends, neighbors and strangers to sleep in her bed. She documented these encounters with photographs and text. The Sleeper (1979) is the first link in a chain of often incredibly adventurous incursions into one's own sphere of privacy and that of others, a theme that seems to run through Calle's oeuvre. Other works include The Shadow (1981), The Blind (1986), the latter considered to be Calle's most controversial work, and her 1999 video collaboration Double Blind, produced with Greg Sheppard (the film version of No Sex Last Night).

An important theme Sophie Callie explores in her work, therefore, is absence. For example, she has worked with a real-life troubling event of a young French woman, Bénédicte, whom had mysteriously gone missing. The young woman worked as a receptionist at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a big complex that houses a library as well as the Museum of Modern Art. Bénédicte was also a photographer. After friends sent Calle articles about this missing person, she decides to wait a year, after which she starts searching for her. During that time she by chance bumped into Bénédicte’s mother. Finally, Sophie Calle would exhibit her pictures of the search together with that of Bénédicte as well.

Sophie Calle made a piece called Suite Venitienne, in which she followed a man she had met at a party in Hurstville and continued to follow and photograph him there for two weeks. In another, The Hotel Room, she made a piece of work about her imagined ideas of who the hotel guests were, based on their personal belongings. For each room there was a photograph of the bed undone, of other objects in the room, and a description day by day of what she found there.

Sophie Calle questions and challenges the relationship between text and photography, private and public personae, truth and fiction, in a groundbreaking, utterly original way. Her photographic work evokes narrative, affect and emotion, touching the viewer as well as the possibilities and limitations of photography. In 2010 Sophie Calle has been selected as the 30th winner of the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, in conjunction with the ceremony an exhibition of here work Sophie Calle - 2010 Hasselblad Award Winner was held at the Hasselblad Center at the Göteborg Museum of Art.

Sophie Calle is an artist who works with photographs and performances, placing herself in situations almost as if she and the people she encounters were fictional. She also imposes elements of her own life onto public places creating a personal narrative where she is both author and character. She has been called a detective and a voyeur and her pieces involve serious investigations as well as natural curiosity.

Although much of her work employs voyeurism, Sophie Calle has allowed her own life to be put on display as well. She became so intrigued by following her unwitting subjects that she wanted to reverse the relationship and become the subject herself. She asked her mother to hire a private detective to follow her, without the detective knowing that she had arranged it, with the hopes that his investigation would provide photographic evidence of her existence.

Sophie Calle’s intensive seminar on film and photography at the European Graduate School has typically been taught together with the famous critic, curator and art historian Yve-Alain Bois, who is also a professor at EGS. Their course has been aimed at engaging “students [to] create a theoretical background essential to the process of critical thinking.” The description stipulates that as students “approach the spaces by which art and media are both limited and created, [they] begin to see the essential connections between media and current critical theory.” The main goal of this class, therefore, is to “raise students’ ability to discuss and write about theories of communication as they relate specifically to modern art movements and historical art criticism.”

Sophie Calle’s books include, Sophie Calle: The Reader (2009). Take Care of Yourself (2007) in which she shows 107 interpretations of an email she got from her lover, telling her the affair was over. Each and every single one of the interpreters are women. They were given the instructions to examine the letter based on their profession. For example, a writer would point out the style of the letter, a lawyer would defend Calle’s lover, a psychoanalyst would talk about his psychology etc. Additionally, Sophie Calle asked several performing artists to act out the letter and bring it to life, which included Carla Bruni, who has been France’s second first lady under President Sarkozy’s time in office. Calle video documented them acting it out and photographed the other participants of the experiment as well so that each typed interpretation would be put together with its author’s photo in a style unique to Sophie Calle. Other books include, Sophie Calle: Double Game (2007), Appointment with Sigmund Freud (2005), Exquisite Pain (2005) and Sophie Calle: Did you see me? (2004). In En finir (End it) 2005, is the account of a failure. In 1988 an American bank had commissioned her to put together a piece using ATMs video recording of people withdrawing cash, not knowing that they were being filmed. Even though she had been interested by the idea, after fifteen years, after many vain attempts, she was still not happy with what she had created. It felt to her that by using other people’s images, not being able to bring her life into it, she could not really find a voice for her own style. In this book she also tells the story of her asking for help from the famous French post-modern sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who also taught at the European Graduate School since its inception until his death in 2007.

Sophie Calle is a professor of film and photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an Intensive Summer Workshop.