Our beloved baguette cat turns fifteen today. She is ill, she has lost weight; he feeds only on protein broths; dies. In order to move forward in the elaboration of the mourning, Caterina and I have been cultivating cemetery fantasies for some time. Wrap it in a linen towel. Place the body in a Moët Chandon box. Bury her at the foot of a crate in her old country home. We thought we were exaggerating, we thought we were wrong. We have no children, we drink couples, we would be responsible for over-care for pets and complicit in human extinction.
But here it is: Page one hundred and fifteen of True stories by Sophie Calle, True stories in the 1994 first edition, with various enriched and modified reprints, up to this Italian one obtained by Contrasto for the meritorious “Lampi” series, 2022. The fiftieth anniversary of the sixty-three stories that make up this issue is dedicated to the cat Souris in his wooden coffin (“he served as a model for the representatives before photography was used”). Other micro-stories are also dedicated to Souris, including Maternity: “When I claimed I didn’t want children, they pointed out that my behavior towards Souris was that of a mother.”
Every book seeks its audience and every reader finds their own way of reading a book. This also applies to this book, which works in many ways. You can open it wherever you want as the structure is the same. On the even side is a photograph, almost always taken of her, it is assumed. They’re mostly instantaneous, a little bit taken in, sometimes crooked and ungrammatical, sometimes recovery, and sometimes recycling. They seem to have been made on purpose to match Joan Fontcuberta or Joachim Schmidt. Instead, the odd-numbered page has a text that can range from the epigraph to the caption to the short story, introduced by a laconic Titolino. Sometimes the text comments on the photos, sometimes the photo illustrates the text, sometimes things take their course. But it remains a compact unit, there is never a page break. Sometimes just the photo takes up the whole page and the text then flows underneath.
The stories are divided into sections, but defining them as “thematic” would be unforgivably bureaucratic. Read them in order, the little stories are a bit like those slide projections of the past commented on with deictic vigor by uncles or cousins on certain celebratory evenings or at the end of boring lunches or dinners.
This is only Sophie Calle speaking. One who, at the age of twenty, watched a striptease every night from a booth in Pigalle: “eighteen times a day, between four in the afternoon and one in the morning”, and we can believe it. And then she posed as a model, only to find that at the end of each session, a guy used a razor blade to tear up the drawings that were taken while inspecting her body. One of these drawings of sadistic, disturbing academicism is on the side next to the story.
Sophie Calle, who later discovers or invents herself as an artist, what a difference it makes, and one day gets employed by one of those Venetian hotels overlooking the Riva degli Schiavoni. For three weeks, it’s the winter of 1981, she sneaks into the rooms as a chambermaid. He notes how he finds the sheets, the things left on the bedside table or on the sink, the clothes hanging in the closet. On these fragments of existence he develops fantasies and tries to imagine the life, the bodies, the actions behind these rubble. Emptiness and absence that take on the thickness of possible presences. The hallucinatory closeness of everyday objects, formless, distracted, signaling nothing but an incurable distance. The hyper-realism of the visual trail and the objectivity of the report in the log make up just another form of opacity.
traveler not aware of acting in front of you voyeur. “I observed in detail life that remained alien to me”: what libro, ormai leggendario e costosissimo, s’intitola L’HotelEditions de l’Etoile, 1984.
These were the years in which an aggressive figurative painting with a neo-expressionist system triumphed together with an ultra-complete revision, at the limit and at times beyond the quoting kitsch and the pastiche postmodern. Years when people still believed in the physical presence of the author (and it could be the vitaminized Texan like Schnabel or the suburban drug addict like Basquiat) and the commodity presence of the masterpiece.
Calle worked in a completely different direction. He had introjected the rather coldly analytical and documentary nature of conceptual and storytelling. And she had understood and lived the most important part of the performative practices and feminist actions of the seventies. But without whining and without flowery skirts. And instead of spitting at Hegel for refusing the family to start among their companions a circle of self-discovery or a mimeographic-style “self-produced” journal, she tried, dwelling on herself with disarming sincerity and a certain courage, to give a very special twist to terms like “The private is political” or “I am mine”.
So he accepted to turn the game of memories and his own human comedy into an analytical transference. But here, without ideologies, systems or grand speeches; putting aside the circus theories about the dominance of the sign and being content with the signs: those left by the bottom of the coffee in the cup, of a puffed up pillow, of the withered corpse of a dead cat (not Souris, but another: her says she’s owned three so far, now they’re all gone).
Or like the time he found an address book on the rue des Martyrs and, before returning it to the owner, copied and contacted all the people on the list to explain that he wanted to speak to them to find out who the owner was . So, without wanting to meet him, simply understand his circle of friends and acquaintances (The address book, 1983, first published on «Libération»). Things like this have led to her inscribing into that “relational aesthetic” – Nicholas Bourriaud famously defined it – in which art functions as a social space, divorced from the laws of profit. A space that welcomes everyday experiences, gently inviting us or forcefully forcing us to assume various social functions.
The life told by Sophie Calle True stories it’s the bed he slept in until he was seventeen; the then coveted wedding dress; her breasts mean a long time compared to her wealthy mother and which “1992, in six months” took amazing shape. And it’s a life marked by old aunts embroidering bed sheets, by herself reappearing in the mildly astonished photograph of her childhood, by the sleeping night on the Eiffel Tower. And then of husbands who trigger an erection as a first wedding gift and are asked to piss in a bucket before the divorce on camera because “with this shot my hand was placed on her sex one last time”. And then the unwanted children and then again and again mothers and fathers that we always find ourselves. “I was thirty years old and my father thought I had bad breath. Without asking me, he arranged for me to see a general practitioner he happened to meet. I went there As soon as she arrived, it was immediately clear to me from her manner that she was a psychoanalyst”.
Parents who then grow old and then die, just like Souris, but many years later (“He decided everything. Even his death: 96 years. Closed speech. Then he saw her reach 94. Stole two years. That did he. to infuriate”).
In True stories the adjective that makes up the title is perhaps the most enigmatic and unsettling. Less analytical and serious Film stills without title by Cindy Sherman, less visceral and one-sided than that Ballad of sexual addiction By Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle’s work sits at the intersection of these authors and these works, challenging the very concept of documentary truth and autobiographical fiction, and subverting the photographic document’s status as self-narrative.
For this Italian edition to be proposed by Contrasto says a lot about how photography has changed over the past forty years thanks to the work of non-photographers. And it’s really hard to say what Sophie Calle really is: in the fusion of art and life and without improbable aestheticism, from time to time she has been an actress, a videomaker, a photographer, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a celebrity, a mystifier, and everything else of those things together .
Ahead of Instagram’s narcissistic storytelling and selfishness, with its peculiar interference between text and image, Sophie Calle has created something that transcends both the altar and the confessional, the mystical and the prosaic, the family album and the personal diaryof the fiction of life and the truth of death.
And in the last photograph of the book, all is clear, with the figure of the author reflected on the gleaming surface of a granite tombstone, longed for as a cemetery nine thousand kilometers from Montparnasse. His heart was open, in the only way possible today. She makes us think we know everything about her, but we don’t really know anything about her.
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