Review: Sophie Calle at the Museo de Arte Moderno Medellín

Sophie Calle (© Tom Griggs)

Sophie Calle’s exhibition Historias de Pared opened at the Museo de Arte Moderno Medellín (MAMM) on March 21st and will be up until June 3rd. The show will then travel to Bogotá’s Museo de Arte del Banco de la República. The exhibition consists of four works – The Blind and See the Sea in the MAMM’s Sala Norte, Exquisite Pain in the Sala Sur, and the 72-minute video No Sex Last Night screening three times a day in the Sala de Proyectos Especiales (10:30 am, 2:30 pm, 4:00 pm).

In The Blind (1986), Calle asked a group of people born blind to describe their conception of beauty. She presents a portrait of each of the respondents, the text of their response, and one, two, or three images that represent the content of that response (in one case there are no images).

For See the Sea (2010), Calle met people living in and around Istanbul who had never seen the sea. She brought them and filmed their response. The videos each present a person or people seen from behind with the sea beyond them; after a few minutes of looking out towards the water, they turn to face the camera so we see their response. There are five videos presented on separate flat-screen monitors mounted to the wall.

In 1984, Calle’s lover broke up with her by phone after she had been traveling alone in Asia for 92 days. It was, up until that point, the worst day of her life. Fifteen years later, she was ready to deal with the episode artistically in Exquisite Pain (2000). The work is divided into two parts. The first is a series of 92 photographs and documents of various sizes, framed and hung side by side, each stamped sequentially with the days remaining before the day of “unhappiness.” For the second part, she presents diptychs. She asked friends after returning to France what had been the day that they had suffered most, and presents their response as embroidered text on a sheet, with a related photograph above. Alongside it she gives a version of her own story, also embroidered into a sheet, with a photograph of the phone where she received the bad news in New Dehli above. 

The film No Sex Last Night (1992) documents a cross-country road-trip Calle took with the artist Gregory Shepard in a convertible Cadillac. They drive from New York to Mills College in California where she would teach the following semester. Each had a video camera to record the real-life narrative of the trip from their perspective, presenting competing visions of their relationship.

Installation view of Exquisite Pain (© Tom Griggs)

The four works span the length of Calle’s celebrated career and balance two works focused on her personal life with two works which center on the lives of others. It pairs The Blind and See the Sea as an installation in the same room together; Calle envisions them as sister projects. Calle herself designed and oversaw the installation. The show flows through the limited space of the museum’s galleries, filling the spaces completely without feeling cramped.

The installation is better than previous productions at the museum, but is still problematic. There were some unfortunate problems typical of the MAMM during the press conference with Calle: slanted wall texts and non-functioning videos. During two repeat visits over the following weeks, however, the issues had been resolved.

Remaining deeply problematic, unfortunately, is the installation of The Blind. Glare destroys the higher of the two tiers of images, the glass of the tilted images picking up the museum lighting and making the images only viewable from an exaggerated angle (see image below). It’s a bad marriage between the pre-existing lighting conditions and the to-the-millimeter pre-set triangular installation formation Calle uses for the work in which she places the top images high on the walls. I understand she can’t vary the organization of the existing work, but I don’t see any conceptual reason for her deviation from her usual straight-line horizontal installations and, at least in this case, the deviance fails her.

Installation view The Blind (© Tom Griggs)

Well, we’re not here for visual beauty. Writer and photographer Hervé Guibert wrote the preface for the catalog to Calle’s first retrospective at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and said, “She calls herself a photographer, but Sophie Calle can’t even manage to take a proper photograph.” In the same catalog, critic Yves-Alain Bois writes, “Firstly, her pictures are invariably bland, uninteresting.”

The photos of Exquisite Pain are snapshot average, those of The Blind are as visually stimulating as reading text. No Sex Last Night combines more snapshot stills with home video. See the Sea has higher-end production values, but again form functions simply to communicate an idea. With Calle, as long as the form doesn’t get in the way, it’s done its job and here it has.

What we are here for is to witness her explorations of voyeurism; to see her erase of boundaries between art and life and fiction and reality; to engage with work that presaged an entire era of questions around public / private, surveillance, and the public revelations of intimacy that dominate the social dynamic of our contemporary lives.

Of the four works, The Blind stands out for the ingeniously simple, direct proposal of the work and its equally efficient resolution. This is Calle at her best; pushing the lines of documentation and art, exploring curiously, and reporting back to us with the power of the basic proposal maintained and displayed.

See the Sea attempts to repeat this direct simplicity, but here we see how thin the line is that Calle needs to walk between truth and fiction for her work to succeed. What feels honest in The Blind feels contrived in See the Sea. The orchestration and constriction she places on the event strangles the moment: each person is shown from behind so we don’t actually see their reaction in the defining moment of first encounter and then each, after a few minutes, turns to face the camera to show what feels like a forced attempt to prolong their emotional response. Except for a video featuring five children, all have a similar reaction to their first look at the sea – stoic, tearful, emotionally moved.

See the Sea (© Tom Griggs)

See the Sea (© Tom Griggs)

This uniformity of their responses, the singular emotional pitch across all the videos, and the lack of other types of reactions - of smiles, of wonder, even of indifference - seems disingenuous; “art” has unified their response. Calle has said, “I don’t care about truth; I care about art and style and writing and occupying the wall.” Here, however, she needs the sense of emotional truth of the subjects to maintain the blur between art and life, and it doesn’t. Only the children, who after going through the organized ritual of their response, run and play in the water, feel genuine. The rest are scripted into fiction, the line between fiction / reality remains clear, and the work is weakened by it.

Exquisite Pain is an idea overburdened by its elaborate production and complicated conceptual framework. Its enormous physical presence, the hundreds of framed images, the daunting amount of text, and the multi-part conceptual proposal collectively cost the observer the immediacy of the initial emotional spark of the idea - and with that, its power to move us.

No Sex Last Night is often funny and has just enough of a narrative pull. It’s a window into Calle as an obsessive, on how she places head over heart; into how she plays the role of passive observer to her own life, making decisions simply to see what will happen, playing out life with a sense of its absurdity and of theater production. The press release says, “The viewer is challenged to face the possibility of reconsidering the cultural roles imposed by gender, sexuality, power and tradition. Throughout the process, Calle seeks to redefine through personal research, the terms and parameters of the relationship subject / object, public / private, truth, fiction and role games.” That’s a lot to read into this. I'd argue the viewer is equally challenged to stay for the whole 72-minutes; I was the only one in attendance for the screening who did.

Installation Exquisite Pain, part 2 (© Tom Griggs)

The show is by far the biggest museum event in the six years I’ve known Medellín and something of a coup for the MAMM. Their curatorial team directly arranged Calle’s participation and the show helps cement the museum as national quality, showing it no longer needs to look to Bogotá’s Museo de Arte del Banco de la República for curatorial help and guidance. The installation and management is better than previous shows at the MAMM, but still needs polishing.

This show doesn’t do much to push or challenge any of the prevailing thoughts about Calle’s career – it’s a balance of some of the greatest hits with no particular fresh interpretation of the work. In sum, its like going to a stadium show by an aging rocker; you know what you’re getting and the songs by heart, you bring your lighter, you sing along.

Sophie Calle (© Tom Griggs)