It is intriguing how in Sophie Calle’s work the subtle becomes personal then obvious and then subtle again, in an endless circle that entraps the viewer. But beware of the seduction. The art of this irreverent, and unstoppable, artist has a deep psychological effect on the unsuspecting. Her latest exhibition, For the Last and First Time, on view at the MAC is an immensely pared down production, an installation done with rigorous economy of means, but delivering no less of a punch, however subtle and nuanced it may be.

As in all of her varied and often scandalous production, Calle is at the centre of the work, whether she is visible or not. One could say that of any artist, but she belongs to a particular group that blurs the line between the public and the personal, the body and the art. On that continuum, she is perhaps closer to Yoko Ono than Marina Abramovicć but like them, does not shy from putting her physical body on display, and in harm’s way. All in the name of art. Or is it?

For Abramovic, “my purpose of performance artist is to stage certain difficulties and stage the fear the primordial fear of pain, of dying, all of which we have in our lives, and then stage them in front of audience and go through them and tell the audience, ‘I’m your mirror; if I can do this in my life, you can do it in yours.’”

What she does, however, is certainly not for everybody. In one of her performances Rhythm 0, 1974, Abramovic placed on a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use in any way that they chose. Some of these objects were innocuous, even pleasurable, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet.

This “performance” went on for six hours, as the audience got more and more aggressive, leaving the artist naked and bloodied.

Yoko Ono staged a similar show in the 60’s, Cut Piece, in which, seated motionless on a stage in a black dress, she allowed the audience to cut pieces off it and keep them, until she was left kneeling in her underwear.

Calle, whose life reads like a story, continuously turns it into a performance piece, thus merging the two, art and life, in an endless pursuit of her own identity. She stalked people for one project, and invited strangers into her bed for another. She asked her mother to hire a private detective to follow her, without the man knowing she had arranged it, to provide “photographic evidence of my existence.” Voila.

It is always a thrill to see what adventure this audacious French artist has prepared for her eager public. Born in 1953, Calle is not only an installation and conceptual artist, but also an accomplished photographer, and writer. Yet, ultimately, her art does not rely on any of the mediums she chooses to express her vision. In her work, she explores the boundaries of human interrelations, prodding and poking, searching for the breaking point, at her own risk. Thus her artistic production becomes a form of document, as well as a page from a painfully personal diary.

Her work gets under the skin. The assault is on all fronts – visual, cerebral, emotional. It begins with the notion of the subject matter, an idea that begins to bore into one’s psyche before ever laying eyes on the actual artwork. Such is the case with the For the Last and First Time exhibition. Part of her Les Aveugles series, it deals with blindness, in a compassionate albeit direct way, inviting the viewer to ponder, together with her, the fate, and the words, of those who have lost their sight. The first part, For the Last Time, an installation consisting of medium sized photographs accompanied by text, is as powerful as it is simple in its presentation. The photographs were taken in Turkey, where Calle found herself on assignment. She had by then embarked on her The Blind series, and was intrigued to encounter a surprisingly large number of blind people there. She asked those she met and who wished to share their stories with her, about the moment when they lost their sight. Suffice it to say, the testimonials are poignant, the photographs never overshadowing the words. They show the blind person, at times accompanied by images from their life: a blurry red bus driving away, a small flower sketched on a notepad, an empty couch… In some the faces are stoic, in others in the throes of recounting, recollecting, miming their now invisible world. Whether we like it or not, Calle has turned us all into voyeurs, as we peer into the blind eyes, and surreptitiously read the words over and over.

And in the background, the sea beckons, the sound of endlessly crashing waves breaking the spell. It is coming from the next room, where nine giant video screens form the latest addition to the installation series. Here we enter the realm of First Time. The people in the images are not blind, but, while living only a few kilometres away from the coast, have never seen the sea.

It’s easy to see the continuity, the evolution of the concept, leading Les Aveugles to this part, Voir la mer. In a small, preceding room, there is only one photo from the original series, Aveugle no. 1, 1986. The quotation by the young man in the photograph seems prophetic for the artist. The future of her project revealed. “The most beautiful thing I ever saw, the sea going out so far you lose sight of it.”

The people staring at the rumbling pale sea have their backs to us, and we stand with them, and watch the waves come and go. We fidget, we look around, but then we go back to our virtual companions and we look in silence. The idea behind Calle’s installation was to see how the experience of the sea, seen for the very first time, would affect those looking. After several, long minutes, the men and women in the videos slowly turn towards the camera, in intervals, one by one they turn towards us, and we lock eyes. We are now fully in the clutches of one of the most original and intriguing artists. Calle has taken us into a dimension of human existentiality, calling ‘art’ what some may call ‘life’. Her works are on a scale that reaches beyond the concept of art, and into an often uncomfortable realm of our own frailty. 

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
February 5—May 10, 2015