As always with Sophie Calle, the idea is as simple as can be — expressed in just a few lines. For “Dernière Image” (“Last Image”) (2010), which combined text and photography, she went to Istanbul to meet blind people who had suddenly lost their sight and asked them to describe their last memory. For “Voir la Mer,” a video piece on 14 screens, the artist, along with director of photography Caroline Champetier, filmed individuals who had been blind from birth, and who were invited to “see” the ocean for the first time ever.
The idea of bringing these two projects together in a show at Emmanuel Perrotin seemed only natural, since they complement each other so well, and since the subject matter — blindness, emptiness, the absence of sight, and the attempt at representing sight — is a longstanding concern of the artist. (In “Aveugles” (“The Blind”) in 1986, Calle asked blind people about their concept of beauty, and in “La Couleur Aveugle” (“The Blind Color”) in 1991, she compared statements by blind people to commentaries by artists including Malevitch, Klein, and Richter on monochrome works.) The new show is called “Pour la Dernière et Pour la Première Fois” (“For the Last and for the First Time”), and it runs through October 27.
A Disturbing Confrontation
Here, the artist makes us directly enter her dialectic of seeing and not-seeing, of showing and hiding. On the video screens, people who have been blind from birth (an old man, a mother and child) look toward the ocean, which they do not see, with their backs to the camera, and then they turn and look toward us. They blink and approach the lens, as if they were trying to see us with closed eyes — to perceive us, a sighted audience of voyeurs. The image is a powerful one. The participants’ emotions are palpable through the filter of the camera. Maybe a bit too palpable, because, by emphasizing the emotional aspect of the work, they almost make us forget its primary component, both philosophical and aesthetic: what does it mean not to see?
It’s something of a problem in Sophie Calle’s work: she plays with sentiment a great deal, while pretending not to touch it by neutralizing it in a fragmented and conceptual form, by using texts (her famous “narrative art”) and image-documents. But it doesn’t matter. The emotional charge is still intense. In the next room, hung on the wall like little movable altars, are the portraits of the blind along with the stories of their last memories. One remembers a brutal accident; for another, her husband’s face is her last visual memory. Another remembers nothing but the blinding light that he has never stopped seeing, after waking up to it suddenly one morning. As in “The Blind” (1986), Calle photographs them uncompromisingly, without any desire for sublimation. Here, too, the face-to-face is inevitable, and brutal.
The Tragedy of the Ordinary
So there’s a paradox at the center of this exhibition, which tries to escape from pathos while feeding it all the while. The artist had accustomed us to a less direct form — more conceptual, more fragmented. In fact, that’s what Calle’s talent has been all about: taking hold of overwhelming subjects (break-ups, death of a loved one, intimacy in general) and treating them in a ruptured way, without any continuity of chronology or media, everything immersed in bits of stories, videos, objects. The visitor, somewhat lost, had to reconstruct these bits and pieces through mental gymnastics, a bit like reading a nouveau roman literary work, or in the strict manner of conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth. Here, it’s the opposite: the space appears too full, too dense, too operable. Instead of being neutral, the images and texts suck us in.
With this “Last and First Time,” Calle seems to approach the tragic. An ordinary tragic, in which blind people replace ancient heroes (it is impossible not to think of Oedipus), victims of a dramatic climax, of a sinful fate that cannot be overcome. Calle forces us to look, and what we see inspires pity, in the Greek sense of the word: the sentiment that one feels when seeing the suffering of others. Didn’t Aristotle say that this was the goal of tragedy? Calle makes her subjects the heroes of existence (and the placement of the photos and texts recalls the picture frames that are put on the coffins of the war dead). In that regard, she seems to place her work more clearly on the side of emotion. For better or for worse.