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Sophie Calle: Talking to Strangers

Fusing documentrary-style work with a performance art aesthetic, Sophie Calle cleverly combines fact and fantasy.

French artist Sophie Calle walks an elegant line between documentary and performance art. Balancing fact with fantasy, public with private identities and rules with chance, she combines photography, film and text to create high-concept artworks. Her exhibition at The Whitechapel looks at Calle's output from the1980s to the present, and her art’s central preoccupation – the documentation of social interaction.

Prenez Soin de Vous (Take Care of Yourself, which has its English language premiere here), chronicles the responses of 107 women Calle asked to interpret a break-up email she received from her lover. Everyone from criminologists and scientists to opera singers were consulted, and all of them responded within the lexicon of their professions – offering songs, graphs and dances, or in the case of a rifle shooter, three bullet holes through a copy of the letter.

Alongside this large-scale installation are some of Calle’s celebrated past projects, such as For The Sleepers, a series of intimate black and white photos, for which she invited 29 people to give her "a few hours of their sleep”. Taking consecutive shifts in her bed over an eight day period, she photographed her subjects both awake and asleep.

For 1980’s The Bronx, Calle placed herself in a potentially more hostile environment, the economically-depressed south Bronx, where she asked strangers to take her to a place of their choosing. The result is a collection of evocative photos and written accounts of her day in a neighbourhood falling apart. This depressed landscape is a constant backdrop for unsentimental portraits of people next to places of hope, including the Yankee Stadium, the Botanical Gardens and the (waste)land blessed by the Pope. One man brought her to a bank, saying, "I used to have a bank account. I would like another one.”  

In 1994 she collaborated with American author and Francophile Paul Auster. Here, we see the results, as she follows his “Personal Instructions On How to Improve Life in New York City” which includes "smiling at strangers". She keeps a record of smiles given to smiles received, and goes about beautifying a phone booth – painting it, adding flowers, snacks and a pad of paper for people to leave comments. Eventually, the phone company put a stop to her endeavours, presumably unimpressed by her artistic mission.

Calle often breaks the bourgeois rules of respect for privacy, emphasising the voyeurism implicit in all her work. For The Address Book she contacted each person listed in an address book she found in the street, and asked them about its owner, again documenting the results with images and text. In this way she developed a portrait of a stranger without ever meeting him or asking his consent.

These and the rest of the works in this exhibition teeter exuberantly between Calle’s conceptual rigour and the elements of chance brought about by including both herself and her subjects directly in the artistic process. This spirit of inclusivity is more likely to illicit feelings of intimate understanding than intellectual dispassion; Calle’s is a conceptual art born of the world, not the classroom or studio.  

Talking to Strangers is at the Whitechapel Gallery from October 16 to January 3.