Sophie Calle Please follow me/ Suite Venitienne
Please Follow Me is a story of the following of a man, which is a leitmotiv in Sophie Calle's work. This one is slightly different from the other ones, as she is introduced to a man one night at a opening that she followed earlier the same day. During the conversation he mentions he is going to Venice in the following days. She then decides to follow him there.
There is the dimension of exposure which Calle often engages in her work. She often uses her own experiences as a starting point of the work, which brings the idea of the private and the public. Sophie Calle is not afraid to expose her body, as she is a striper for several months in the parisian quarter of Pigalle and a serie of photo results from this experience. She also poses for nude classes while one of the drawers has a weird ritual : after each class, he cuts the drawing with a razor blade.
In Suite Venitienne, the artist exposes someone else, by tracking him through his journey in Venice. She documents all the man's moves throughout his stay by photographing, mapping and writing all the precise details of his actions. In the end, we can say that she is the one who is more exposed in this work. She exposes herself through a weird habit which is following strangers throughout the city. The main interest in the book is not what Henri B. does during his stay in Venice but mostly why does Sophie Calle follows a stranger for days in a foreign country. The aim of the pursuit is not to be discovered, yet she is publishing it in a book.
We find a recurrent theme in the artist's work : loneliness. In a way, we can say she is trying to connect to this man, trying to know his life. It also brings the question of control. Her work is lead by her encounters and the others play a big part in her work. I find it interesting that she redefines the status of the artist's implication in his works and mostly what is considered as art.
Finally, what differs this piece of art from the act of a stalker? What makes it art? I think the coherence of this piece with her previous followings makes it more interesting and whitnesses the artist's spirit of creation which is the art of the unexpected and spontaneous, finally close to reality and life. Everybody can relate to her art, which is humble, human and funny.
I mostly like that Sophie Calle does not try to give a glorious image of herself, on the contrary she is not afraid to share intimate and akward details of her life. For example, she tells the story of her family advising her to get a nosejob as they find it too big. She hesitates, then finally accepts but agrees with the surgeon that she can change her mind until the day of the operation. In the end, the surgeon puts an end to her dilemma by commiting suicide the day before. That is, I think, what is great about her work, turning insignificant stories which could be sad but with irony and self-mockery.
This story also echoes to Suite Venitienne in the issue of control and the place given to coincidences in her work. At the end of the book, we can find an essay by the french philosopher Jean Baudrillard. As a mirror, Sophie Calle asks him to give his opinion as she was trying get an explanation of her actions afterwards. Gotham Handbook, for example results from a collaboration with the french author Paul Auster. She imposes herself to live the life of the main character of Leviathan, which consists in eating meals of the same colour and spending days under the sign of a letter.On the other hand, Maria is inspired by the artist herself and real events that happened in her life are related from page 84 to page 93.
This back and forth between reality and fiction brings the question of ambiguity which is also very present in all of her work. We can say that in Please follow me, she is exposing this Henri B. but still manages to keep secret details like his name or his face, which is totally absent of the photos. Always photographed from behind, wearing a dark coat and a hat, the framing places the reader in a environment of film noir and Henri B. in the position of a outlaw followed by a detective : Sophie Calle, hiding under a blond wig. Moreover, the facts are retranscripted in a very serious way which contrasts the absurdity of the pursuit.
Interviewed by Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel director for the exhibition Talking to strangers in 2009, Sophie Calle describes her first impulse to take a camera as a gesture to seduce her father, an art collector, by imitating the kind of art he liked, who was, at the time, not happy with the kind of life she was leading. Her father is indeed a figure that we meet several times through her work, for example at the beginning of Suite Venitienne he accompanies her to the station. It echoes the question of control and free will : is sophie calle choosing at all what she does? Or all of her creation is lead by the impulse of the oedipus complex?
She also mentions the camera is a way of mediating with the city and the space around her. Following people allows her to go out and wander around in Paris without choosing where she goes and when she goes to those places. She also explains that it was at a time when she came back to paris and didn't know what to do, a space of transition when she had no desire. Following rules is in the end a way of not having to think and gives her freedom. Disappearing in the followings of strangers, repeating their actions, existing through them and letting them exist in more than one person without them knowing. Also, she speaks about the relationship of trust with the strangers, asking unusual and weird questions like “would you sleep in my bed” makes people say yes more easily than a normal question. The exhibition at the white chapel gallery was also unusual in its use of materials : photographs could be manipulated which reflects the simple approach of Sophie Calle to art.
Sophie Calle's work can also be caracterized as ambiguous. While dealing with love and closeness, publishing those intimate stories to a wide audience makes her closer to the audience than the person she talks about in the book. In the end, is it her audience to whom she is the closest?
We can find that the relation with the others is also ambiguous, she tries to connect with strangers by following them but finally does not try to know them furthermore. The idea of rules is also ambiguous, in a way the artist trangresses rules and flirts with the unappropriate but also enjoys imposing rules to herself as in Gotham Handbook. Following people is also a way of controlling people, collecting details and trying to know their lives while the artwork resulting from it leaves no control to his author.
As I delved into Sophie Calle's work, I wanted to understand the meaning of following strangers. I did not try to imitate her rather than translating her approach to mine, maybe less insured. I also became interested in the importance of the city where the following takes place. In Please Follow Me, the following takes place in Venice but is initiated in Paris and in this instance, is the following of the work in Paris. The fact that Sophie Calle takes the train and travel to another country on an impulse is also very strong and adds depth to the work. I wondered if following people in London would be different, as the city is constructed in a different way as Paris or Venice, being a totally different scaled city.
After thinking about following people without planning it, it happened by chance one afternoon. Being early to a meeting and having some time on my hand, I passed by this old man in the area of Barbican. I was first moved by his unsteady gait and his curled up silhouette. Then, I became aware of the fact he was walking and moving very slowly which made the following pretty easy but made me more likely to be discovered. After those three pictures, I had the uneasy feeling I was priving into his life and taking advantage of his difficulty of moving. I finally stopped walking and stood watching him disappear in the landscape of the high buildings of the city.