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Sophie Calle Exhibit at Fort Mason Gives ‘Good Grief’ a New Meaning

Missing, on display through August 20, presents four of the French conceptual artist’s most celebrated works.

Voir la mer, 2011, installation view.


The four works by artist Sophie Calle on display in various settings across Fort Mason beginning this week are in most ways entirely separate from one another, having been conceived of and created at different points over the past decade. But squint your eyes just the tiniest little bit, and the similarities between them become astonishing. (Though it might help to speak a little French.)

Missing, which opens June 29 and runs through August 20, is a collection of four of most significant projects by Calle, the celebrated French conceptual artist who represented France in the 2007 Venice Biennale, all of which are being presented here for the first time in the United States. The exhibition, put on by the Fort Mason Center for the Arts and curated by Ars Citizen, is a sort of emotional and symbolic journey through grief.

The first stop on that trip is Rachel Monique (2007), a multimedia installation about the death of Calle’s mother. Here, it’s presented inside the fort’s former military chapel, giving the entire production the air of a kind of living shrine: A screen behind the altar plays a looped video (titled Couldn’t Capture Death) of Calle’s mother on her deathbed as relatives gather around her to witness her final breath. (The family keeps trying to determine whether she’s actually passed away yet—the anticlimax of uncertainty being referenced in the title.) Throughout the chapel, the word souci—French for “worry”—appears in various forms, an homage to her mother’s dying words, Ne vous faites pas de souci. The theme is twisted further, as marigold flowers (also souci in French) dot the procession. Between the pews are enlarged photographs of tombstones Calle shot while living in Bolinas, where she spent the late 1970s. The tombstones read only “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and so on—no names. Calle herself has already purchased a plot in the cemetery, evidenced by a certificate that’s on display. (The plot next to hers has been purchased by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.)

Oh, and the giraffe! There’s a giant taxidermy giraffe head, too. Calle purchased the piece right after her mother’s death and named it after her. 

The next stop requires yet another linguistic echo. From la mère (mother), we visit la mer (the sea), in Voir la mer (2011), a series of videos Calle shot in Istanbul of poor Turkish people viewing the ocean for the very first time. Turn 180 degrees around inside the Fort Mason firehouse, and you’re confronted with a perfect view of Alcatraz Island, with Tiburon and Sausalito looming in the distance—a point that’s driven even further home in the adjacent exhibition, The Last Image (2010). For that work, Calle interviewed a series of Turkish people who’d lost their vision in accidents or to illness and asked them about their final vision, and in several cases re-created those scenes with photography. Again, the setting does some heavy lifting here as that priceless view looms large behind you.

Finally, in Gallery 308, is Calle’s seminal work, Take Care of Yourself (2004–2007), created for the 2007 Venice Biennale. The project is a collection of 107 women’s responses to a breakup letter Calle received from an ex that ended, curtly, “take care of yourself.” Each is asked to interpret the letter based on her profession.

The responses are at turns heartbreaking, straightforward, and polite, and include among them (deep breath) a Latinist, a tax accountant, an intelligence officer, a historian, a lawyer, a magazine editor, a lexicographer, a judge, an ad executive, a lyricist, a criminologist, and an ethnomethodologist—whatever that is. There are also reflections from a child (“It’s sad”), a police captain, a nursery school teacher (“Who’s the hero of this story?” she responds, as if it were a book report), a philosopher (who recommends Kierkegaard), and a sexologist (“You are simply sad,” she diagnoses). There’s also a parrot, who eats the letter.

Throughout, the repetition of imagery serves to give each project the feel of an exhaustive piece of research. Much of Calle’s work blurs the line between public and private—in the past, she’s followed strangers on the street or gone undercover as a hotel maid—and in these works, she’s again turning deeply intense, internal feelings outward. But by exploring these raw feelings in such a thorough and objective way, she makes them universal and approachable. 

Calle, who was on hand for Thursday’s preview, was asked about exposing such personal moments for the public eye, and she shrugged off the suggestion. “I don’t feel it’s personal,” she said. “Everyone’s received a breakup letter, or the loss of a mother or father or brother. For me, it’s banal.”

It’s a sentiment Calle’s mother would probably agree with. Among the 107 responses to Calle’s breakup, rather tucked away, is a partially obscured letter her mother wrote her. Proving that as always, mother knows best, she writes, “You didn’t even live together.”

Sophie Calle,
, admission free, Wednesdays through Saturdays, June 29–August 20.  


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