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Sophie Calle at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

You might not know it from looking at her work, but French artist Sophie Calle insists that she is a fairly happy person. Well, she is now, anyway. Over the last two decades, Calle has made it her business to follow, peek into, and outright spy on the lives of people she barely knows, with results that both illustrate human vulnerability and tend not infrequently to pathos. In her latest project, an exhibition entitled "Exquisite Pain," Calle, 46, turns her attention to a heart-breaking and life-changing experience from her own past. The photography, texts, and installation show is now in at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.

The first half of "Exquisite Pain" features 92 color and black-and-white photographs and travel memorabilia which Calle shot and collected in 1984 and 1985. Starting in Moscow, Calle traveled to China on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Her journey landed her in Japan, where Calle settled in to work for three months. She planned to travel afterwards to India to meet her lover, but when the appointed day arrived, he broke off the relationship and Calle was devastated.

There is nothing sentimental about Calle’s work – it is personal but it is precise. Onto each of these pictures Calle has rubber-stamped, in red ink, a countdown to her date with destiny. A photo of the Chinese countryside shot through the window of her train compartment, for example, is stamped with the words "81 DAYS TO UNHAPPINESS," while a picture Calle took from a television in her Tokyo hotel room, of sumo wrestler Konishiki hitting the ground, is stamped to mark 11 days before Calle was supposed to meet her beau.

Naturally, at the time she took these pictures, Calle was anticipating only happiness. It is partly the mixed and mirrored emotions delivered by Calle’s clinical approach which determine the power of this work. "Mirrored" because the second half of the show – divided from the first by a recreation of room 261 at the New Delhi Imperial Hotel, site of the non-rendez-vous – is all about how Calle worked through her pain.

Here the visitor will find twenty large photographs accompanied by texts – Calle’s signature motif. While the embroidered texts are in Japanese only, the Hara has thoughtfully prepared English-language translations, which, along with the French-language originals, are available at the museum’s front desk.

Calle, (whose work is not all sad, actually) excels in the cataloguing of both human contact and distance, transposing these into her conflated communication medium of language and photography. In a celebrated 1980 work, "Suite Venetienne," Calle followed a stranger who boarded a train in Paris. She and her quarry ended up in Venice, and Calle continued clicking a photodocumentation of the unbalanced relationship that developed. Other work has involved hidden cameras in public places, and the invitation to the artist’s room of a parade of friends and strangers, who were asked to live and sleep there while Calle took pictures and notes.

Although this is her first solo show at a Japanese museum, Calle has arrived in a big way. Heibonsha, a major publisher, has released a book, "The True Stories of Sophie Calle;" while Euro Space, a Shibuya cinema, will be showing the artist’s film "Double Blind." Also, a Calle gallery show, "Double Games," is in at Ginza’s prestigious Gallery Koyanagi. These are all intriguing introductions to Calle’s work, but the pick of the lot is certainly "Exquisite Pain."

"Time went by, it’s just a story now," says Calle when asked why it took her almost 15 years to address what she describes as "the most unhappy moment in my life."

"Back then," she says, "I could never have done this because it would have been far too painful."

At the well-attended Hara opening party, Calle looks very, very happy.


Notes : At the Hara until Feb 27, at the Koyanagi to Dec. 18, and at Euro Space to Dec 1, 1999 and again Feb 5-25, 2000. (03-3445-0651)
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