Most Sophie Calle works seem to be about men. But look closely, and you’ll see that her men are more plot device than protagonist. Often, the men are wholly invisible, and the works are instead about her clever retorts. Playing games with these men, her responses to their cues often caricature clichés of love and gender.
There was the man who rudely broke up with her by email. She had this document analyzed by 107 women, including linguists, clairvoyants, and even a female parrot, then turned their annotations into an installation titled after its final line: Take Care of Yourself (2007). There’s the man, Monsieur Henri B., whom she followed to Venice for Suite Vénitienne (1980). And there’s Paul Auster, the male author who based a character off her for his novel Leviathan. Calle responded by interpreting his metaphors and hyperboles as literal instructions, adopting, for instance, a monochromatic diet (orange on Monday, red on Tuesday, and so on) turning it all into a work of her own.
Recently, the French artist was asked to take on art history’s least invisible man—Picasso—when the Musée Picasso in Paris approached her for a show. Tourists from across the globe flock to that museum, seeking masterpieces by the famed Spanish painter; this year marks half a century since his death. Calle decided to keep just ten of his works on view, but most are occluded. For her, the weight of his presence was intense enough without having to show her work alongside his. With the exhibition, she figures Picasso as a ghost who haunts the work of many artists.
The weight of Picasso’s legacy made Calle reflect on what, exactly, she will one day leave behind. And so, she moved everything out of her apartment and into the museum, asking an auction house to inventory all her belongings. She’s not calling it a retrospective, but in the museum’s galleries, viewers get a career-spanning survey of the ideas she spent her life generating.
In several cases, she refashioned old works for a new setting. Her site-specific 1991 intervention commemorating masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is here reconfigured in a series called “The Phantom Picassos.” Five of his major paintings are covered with large curtains, then embroidered with descriptions Calle collected from museum staff memories while the works were away on loan. She also dedicated a floor to projects she never finished, and arranged works from her personal collection (by the likes of Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, and Christian Boltanski) to approximate the dimensions of Picasso’s Guernica (1937).
With this show, as in all Calle works, absence is present—Picasso is in the basement, but his spirit is felt on all floors. Below, the artist talks about how her practice can veer into obsession.
With all of your stuff gone from your apartment, where are you living?
Right now, I’m in the Hotel Grand Amour, but I change every month. [The auction house] Drouot made my inventory; I didn’t decide which objects they’d take. I got the idea after going to a sale of furniture owned by a friend of mine. It included a table I’d eaten at for 50 years, and I realized I could not buy it for myself. Suddenly, it had lost its soul and become just another object. I felt similarly when I saw my objects installed—it was as if they were no longer mine.
I have a few months to decide whether they will come back to my house; currently, they are not for sale. For the show, I made several catalogues: one is the inventory, and another is the ghost of that inventory—a book that tells the stories behind the objects. Picasso once said that he wanted to show the paintings that are behind his paintings, and I wanted to do the same with my objects.
You’re often respond to terms laid out for you by someone else—often, a man—but always with a wink and a nod. Here, you’re borrowing cues from Picasso, but you’ve also pushed Picasso out of his own museum, and made space for Sophie Calle. Can you talk about that decision?
I pushed him out because I was afraid of him! He’s too much for me. I could not imagine my work hanging next to Picasso’s.
At first, I refused the museum’s invitation. But after I visited the Musée during Covid, when his paintings were wrapped and hidden to protect them from dust light, I realized, although I cannot face Picasso, maybe I can face his ghost. Soon, I couldn’t think about anything else. I made three floors of new work in two years!
I wanted to play with him and with his museum, so I looked through his quotes and his objects for things that connected with me. I titled the show “À toi de faire, ma mignonne,” which basically means “Okay, darling, baby, you want my museum? Take it, show me what you can do.” Or more simply, “it’s your turn, now show me.” It’s the most complex show I have ever made.
I think it’s funny that he is in the basement and I occupy this museum, but I cannot pretend that my initial purpose was feminist. I didn’t put Picasso’s work downstairs because I wanted to cancel him. I did it because I could not be next to him.
What was it about Picasso that made you consider your own legacy?
I had seen a vitrine that contained Picasso’s hair and nails. He kept everything! I am also a little obsessive like that; I keep a lot of things. But Picasso was terribly afraid to write a will because he said that writing a will attracts death. I am also afraid of death. But I stave it off instead by writing 500 wills. When you write so many, they start to become a joke.
Your projects always involve risk, and turning Picasso into an occasion to think about death and legacy seems like one way you made him riskier.
The other risk is that some people could not stand the fact that I’m putting Picasso in the basement. I was told that many Americans would be upset when they saw works by me instead of Picasso. So, I added a consolation room, where visitors can have a personal confrontation with a real Picasso. There are five works behind curtains and three self-portraits. The 10th piece is a goat sculpture [La Chèvre, 1950] that I wrapped in paper. Six are hidden, four are visible. I could see how saying “I’m putting Picasso in the basement and taking his place” could be badly received.
Do you like Picasso’s art?
Yes, I do. I wouldn’t have shown here if I disliked it. I don’t go to dinner at an enemy’s house.
After the 2007 Venice Biennale, and after the artist Daniel Buren said your shows look like books on the wall, you began to move away from your signature, deadpan photo and text combinations, and you started incorporating more objects and experiences. This show has hardly any photographs. How has your thinking about photography evolved?
I never really thought of myself as a photographer; I always needed text. At the same time, I was never a true writer; I always needed the image. But beyond that, I don’t notice these things much, because I’m not an art critic. I don’t look at my own work and analyze it with that kind of distance.
Tell me about the unrealized projects you’re showing on the third floor.
I was following the direction Picasso showed me. He kept everything; I showed everything.
I started wondering, what’s going to happen to my belongings when I die? My parents are dead. I have no children. Then, looking at all the objects from my house, I asked: what’s missing? What was missing was my studio and all the things I didn’t finish. I have tons of drawers and boxes with pieces of ideas, but I realized, if I die tomorrow, this will all disappear. No one else could understand those pieces of paper, those fragments of thought, those abandoned failures.
So, I started opening all my drawers and notes. I was cleaning my house, but also my thoughts. I’m showing 42 abandoned projects. For each, I wrote down the idea, then stamped it with the reason why I didn’t do it: too stupid, too time-consuming. Some projects still have hope; those are in a different room. Some projects I could not do for reasons I can’t control, like censorship or somebody dying. Now all those unfinished projects are, in a way, finished. If I disappear tomorrow, they have a life.
Can you describe some of the projects?
After Paul Auster wrote Leviathan using my character, I thought I would ask a writer to write a book, and then I’d take the book as a script for my life. It would be the reverse: Paul Auster took my life and transformed me into a character in a novel, but I wanted to take the character in the novel and make it my life. But all the writers I asked said no.
Another is a project I started with Wim Wenders. He asked me to wear these camera glasses and say everything I thought to the camera every day. But I realized, I would lose many friends if I did this. This one was self-censorship.
Another idea was to say yes to everything for one month, but I realized that my life was quickly becoming a complete nightmare. I stopped because I didn’t want to spoil my life completely.
In the past, you’ve been vulnerable about sharing romantic failures. But this time, you’re including some, shall we say, professional “failures.” I’m wondering if that feels different.
Often, failures in my personal life wind up helping my professional life. Plenty of the projects I made out of relationships were much more interesting than the relationship itself!
I don’t make these projects for therapeutic reasons. But anybody who is left in love will suffer less if she has a job than if she is stuck alone in her house. Some professional failures were sadder than personal ones and vice versa. When everything is going well, you don’t need to examine it. You just leave it alone. If I am happy with the man I love and with my friends, I don’t need to take distance and describe it. I don’t try to analyze my happiness.
Looking back on all your past work and thinking about your legacy, did you see anything different that you hadn’t noticed before?
I don’t know yet. I only know what I feel. After I showed Take Care of Yourself at the Venice Biennale, I thought that I would never do anything as exciting again. But I was wrong: I had that feeling again for “À toi de faire, ma mignonne.” It really became an obsession.
You commissioned an obituary for yourself, but then decided not to show it. Can you tell us about that, or at least about how it felt to read it?
I decided not to show it, but not because of what it said. It was a very professional obituary; the information was super banal and factual. The problem was how I felt when I read the verbs in the past tense: “she used to,” “she liked.” Suddenly, it all felt too real. I don’t know how I expected to feel, but I didn’t suspect that I’d refuse it. After all, it was my game.