The following is a case study concerning the work of Sophie Calle and fiction. In my studio I have undertaken the task of writing a novel of speculative fiction which I believe employs fiction as a tool. This tool teases apart what would otherwise be known as non-fiction so that we can better understand it, imagine what it might become, or consider what it might have been. My observations of Calle’s practice are focused on how she manipulates or employs fiction.
Sophie Calle was born in 1953 in Paris. What is now considered the beginning of her art practice originated in the late 1970s. It is important to note that Calle did not consider what she was doing at the time to be art. She explains that, “I did not think about becoming an artist when I began. I did not consider what I was doing as art”. It is only in retrospect that her status of artist qualifies the art as such. This indicates that her process is less concerned with the production of artifice and more concerned with the process itself.
Calle’s work manifests as text, photography, video, and installation. There are obvious parallels to Situationism, although it would be reductive to narrow her practice to this singular movement.
Calle performs in and around the space between fiction and non-fiction. Her work activates shifts between fiction and non-fiction or invites us into a liminal space between the two.
For the purposes of examining Calle’s work in regard to its relationship to fiction/non-fiction, I will consider projects that act as touchstones for larger bodies of work. These include Double Game; Rachel, Monique; and Take Care of Yourself.
Double Game, originally published in English in 1999, is a response to Paul Auster’s novel, Leviathan. In his novel, Auster bases a character, Maria, from occurrences and attributes of Calle’s real life. Calle responds to this by enacting the changes that Auster made when he wrote the novel. She wants to become more like Maria; bring the fiction to life. For example, Maria restricts her diet to only eating foods of a single color for a given day. During the week of “December 8 to 14, 1997” Calle follows this regiment. The following eight pages document each meal with an image, textual description of the food, and an explanation of any deviations to the novel.
In the next section, Calle provides documentation for other projects from which Auster borrowed. It is Calle’s aim to show how it “really happened” in this portion of the book. Instead of enacting the fiction, Calle identifies where the fiction deviated, and shows the original work. This offers a glance at a substantial breadth of Calle’s work.
The third and final section is another manipulation of fiction. In this instance Calle requests Auster to invent a character for Calle to enact or embody. Auster provides her the Gotham Handbook; a set of rules or guides for Calle to perform.
The book, Double Game, is constructed with attention to material. It is wrapped by a ribbon tied in a bow. The cover is void of text and instead features an image of Calle dressed and accessorized to be more like Maria. Of the projects outlined here, Double Game is the most direct manipulation of fiction.
The origin of Take Care of Yourself, is a break-up letter Calle received in 2005. In an interview with the Tate Modern, Calle explains that when she received the letter, she gave it to a friend to help her decide how to respond. This led her to a larger project; “I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers), chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter”. The project includes a varied range of professions and forms of responses. Calle expanded the project to include video and performance for the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Responses to the non-fictional letter range from an equally non-fictional translation with notes from the translator, to a short story by romance writers Anne and Marine Rambach. In the book version of Take Care of Yourself, the fictionalized story is presented on a small insert printed on paper to resemble a paperback novel. The book appears to replicate each response as true to the form of the response as possible. By the merits of how the responses are presented, fiction and non-fiction are valued equitably.
The final project under consideration, Rachel, Monique, is an installation first exhibited in 2010 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. For the purposes of this case study, I will specifically look at the book, Rachel Monique which was produced as a companion to the exhibition. Additionally I will address the video, Pas Pu Saisir la Mort (2007).
The book, Rachel, Monique features passages from Calle’s mother’s diary, a curated selection of photos from family albums, and images from the installation. The hardcover book features soft, shimmery white fabric with yellow embroidered text that reads, “She was called successively Rachel, Monique, Syndler, Calle, Pagliero, Gonthier, Sindler. My mother did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her”. On the first two pages, debossed on white paper is text that reads, “She liked to be the object of discussion. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed where she was dying—I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid she would pass away in my absence—she exclaimed: ‘Finally!’”. This moment refers back to the video Pas Pu Saisir la Mort, which was played at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The video documents the last moments of Calle’s mother’s life. The title both poetically and pragmatically describes the impossibility of knowing the precise moment of death. The video is featured on one wall of the installation Rachel, Monique.
The installation also features Calle’s mother’s final word, “souci” written several times in different iterations (one instance spells the word on the wall with actual butterflies). Taken out of context, the word simply commands, “worry”.
The book that acts as a companion to the installation is made of non-fictional building blocks—diary entries and photos. It is the curation, Calle’s choices of what to include and not include, that shapes a narrative. It is a narrative that embraces the information that Calle does not have. “Happy years when I used to travel with three men” acts as an explanation for four images of Calle’s mother with three men. These few details invite so many fictions of what could have happened.
Even though Pas Pu Saisir la Mort is documented in a very non-fictional way—we see Calle’s mother as living and by the end we see her as non-living without artifice or manipulation—the actual moment of death is a fiction. It is a story that we tell ourselves to reconcile the transition from living to non-living.
Sophie Calle’s work embodies a curiosity that cannot be satisfied by a singular mode of representation, either fictional or non-fictional. Calle activates or calls attention to those moments that are hard to place in either category definitively.
Contemporary American post-truth politics is evidence that facts alone are not substantial enough to shape reality. A more complete reality is in the space between fiction and non-fiction. Calle’s process is one of attentive, intentional observing and enacting of fiction and non-fiction. One could ask of any of Calle’s works, “did this really happen?”. Yes, it really did.
1. “Sophie Calle.” Guggenheim, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/sophie-calle.
2. Calle, Sophie, and Paul Auster. Sophie Calle: Double Game. Violette Editions, 2007.
3. Tate Modern. Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself, TateShots, YouTube, 3 Sept. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9E4dA0EGaM.
4. Calle, Sophie. Rachel, Monique. Éditions Xavier Barral, 2017.