Review of Sophie Calle, Double Game, with the Participation of Paul Auster, Violette Editions/DAP, $39.95
On September 1st, Violette Editions/DAP rereleased Double Game, the art book created by Calle in response to Paul Auster’s 1992 novel Leviathan, in which Calle appears as the artist Maria Turner. (This edition of Double Game is timed to coincide with the 2007 Venice Biennale, where Calle recently represented France). With the release of Double Game, the hermeneutic circle is complete. Calle enacts in her art book the projects Auster invented in a novel which fictionalizes Calle’s actual work.
Are you keeping up?
Calle has built a career out of games, and so it is not surprising that she would have responded to Leviathan in this way. Whether she is following a stranger from Paris to Venice (“Suite
Vénitienne,” 1980), inviting perfect strangers to sleep in her bed
while she photographs them (“The Sleepers,” 1980) or enlisting the
advice of 107 of the most talented women in France to help her
interpret a break-up email from her lover (“Take Care of Yourself,”
2007), Sophie Calle has gone further than almost anyone towards
destabilizing the relationship between the artist and her art. Just as
Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, Calle has shown us
the death of the artist. But in the void left by the traditional
authoritative artist figure Calle replaces a spirit of chance and play,
of dialogue and interaction, that opens up more than ever the range and
depth of what we consider to be art.
In the front matter of his novel, Paul Auster thanks Sophie Calle “for permission to mix fact with fiction.” Double Game opens, appropriately, with a note of thanks to Paul Auster, printed in exactly the same language on exactly the same spot on the copyright page. The double game is underway, and it is impossible to tell who began it or who is winning.
Originally published in 1999 (it sold out immediately and has since been out of print), Double Game is organized into three parts. Part I recreates in photographs a series of scenes from Auster’s novel which she did not previously enact in real life. Maria sets herself certain thematic constraints which require her to organize her days or weeks by color or letter; some weeks, Auster writes, Maria “would indulge in what she called ‘the chromatic diet,’ restricting herself to foods of any single color on any given day. Monday orange: carrots, cantaloupe, boiled shrimp. Tuesday red: tomatoes, persimmons, steak tartare.” And so on. This gives way to “similar divisions based on the letters of the alphabet. Whole days would be spent under the spell of b, or c, or w.”
Calle delightedly enacts these games, photographing and eating modified versions of Maria’s chromatic diet, adopting her own alphabet-themed days. The cover of Double Game depicts Calle enacting Maria Turner’s b day: “To be like Maria Turner I spent the day of Tuesday, March 10, 1998, under the sign of B for Big-Time Blonde Bimbo.” The accompanying photograph depicts Calle dressed as a blonde 1960s pinup girl, perched on a bed, looking coyly into the camera, surrounded by a menagerie of animals, over the caption “B for Beauty and the Bestiary, for Bat, Bantam, Boar, Bull, for Bug, Badger, Bray, Bellow, Bleat, Bark, for Beastly Birdbrain, for BB.” The photograph, we learn, is meant to mock a 1989 photograph of Brigitte Bardot, who “in recent years has taken her preference for the cause of animals over that of humans to the point of caricature.”
Calle’s adaptations are remarkable for their spirit of play, of jouissance, of the joy of throwing together disparate references under the heading of an organizing principle chosen at random. In this respect, Calle and Auster seem likely candidates for the Oulipians, who themselves are rooted in the Surrealist tradition enamored of le hasard objectif, or “necessary chance.” Indeed, “W” does feature a work by George Perec–a noted Oulipian and author of Life: a User’s Manual—W ou le souvenir d’enfance sits on a table in a Wagonlit piled with Whitman, works by photographers Weegee and Wegman, and a Walkman.
Part II features the real-life Calle projects which Auster borrowed for Maria:“The Wardrobe,” in which Calle sends a complete stranger with inferior style an article of clothing every year for Christmas, “The Striptease,” where Calle wanders onto the stage of a Pigalle stripclub and takes off all her clothing, and “The Address Book,” in which Calle discovers an address book in the street in Paris and sets about reconstructing the identity of its owner through interviews with the contacts inside, all of which were published in the newspaper Libération. This project takes on particular importance in Leviathan, and provides the key chance meeting which sets in motion the last third of the book.
In Part III, Calle writes that she asked Auster “to invent a fictive character which I would attempt to resemble.” Auster responded with “Gotham Handbook”: a guide to making New York a better place. Part of Auster’s instructions to Calle are to find a spot in New York, any spot, and beautify it. She selects a phone booth on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison Streets, and decorates it with, she tells us, “Glass Plus window cleaner, Brasso metal polish, Krylon ‘clover green’ spray paint, six writing pads, six pencils, one mirror, Devcon epoxy glue, two twelve foot chains, two padlocks, one ashtray, two folding chairs, and the current issue of Glamour magazine.”
Leviathan is not the only time Calle’s games have made their way into literature—Grégoire Bouillier’s 2004 novella L’invité mystère (recently published in English) recounts the author’s invitation to be the “mystery guest” at Calle’s birthday party, and although the book’s focus is on the narrator’s relationship with his ex, Calle’s gimmick provides the occasion for a meditation on relationships, interconnectivity, and coincidence. (The Birthday project makes it into Leviathan as well.)
Calle (b. Paris, 1953) became an artist almost by accident; she dropped out of university to travel for seven years, and when when came back to France she had no idea what she wanted to do. With no friends and no job, she began to follow people in the street, “just to see what people do […] So I started to choose one person a day, and just go wherever that person went. And I understood very quickly that the fact of not having to decide anything but just letting those people decide for my as a motor for my movement, was very—at least, it was a rest,” she said at a conference in 2004.
This following of random people gave way to the project that would become “Suite Vénitienne.” One morning Calle followed a man around Paris, and that evening he turned up at a party she attended. Calle decided it was a sign that she was meant to stay with this man, and to continue to follow him. She did, right into Venice, where she stayed and documented his movements for three weeks. The photographs and notes taken during this time became her first book, published in 1980, which included a text by Baudrillard entitled “Please Follow Me.” The project immediately succeeding “Suite Vénitienne” was called “The Sleepers,” in which Calle invited perfect strangers to sleep in her bed during eight-hour shifts for a week. She took a photograph every hour of the sleeping subject. When one subject’s husband turned out to be an art critic, Calle found herself being invited to show these photographs at an exhibit of young artists in Paris. “So that’s how I became an artist,” Calle says. “With that decision.”
[more to follow]