Sophie Calle as the Precursor to Supermodernity’s Individual “Crisis of Meaning”
In his 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station, American author Ben Lerner succinctly captured the chaotic experience of the “supermodern” period in which we are living through his character’s description of being lost in a European city. “I told the waiter I was looking for a hotel whose name I didn’t know on a street whose name I didn’t know and could he help me,” the narrator recounts. “We both laughed and he said: ‘Aren’t we all.’”
The protagonist’s account of this episode is referential of the work of both French anthropologist Marc Augé and French artist Sophie Calle. The anxiety and disorientation felt by our storyteller is a symptom of Augé’s proposed hypermodern society, and is only further compounded by the fact that the waiter echoes his sentiments, commiserating with this general sense of unease, and alluding to its ubiquity by brushing it off with sarcasm and a laugh.
In the supermodern age described, Sophie Calle’s work holds particular weight. This essay will examine two of Calle’s early works, Suite Vénitienne (1979) and The Shadow (1981), questioning the nature of her explorations, her credibility as an ethnographic artist, and whether her investigations can be considered precursory to Marc Augé’s 1992 analysis of “supermodernity” through its exploration of the “crisis of meaning” in the individual.
In the text Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (1992), Marc Augé discusses the shift from modernity (described by Marshall Berman as ending in 1989) to “supermodernity”—a term Augé coined that refers to contemporary life (loosely defined as post-1990) and its byproducts. In leaving behind modernity, Augé argues, we have opted solely for constant novelty at an accelerated pace. In doing so, we are then unable to distinguish between what is a meaningless event as opposed to a significant moment, leaving one inevitably feeling empty, or as Ian Buchanan calls it in his essay “Non-Places: Space in the Age of Supermodernity,” in a “so-called crisis of meaning” (Buchanan, Rev. of Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Social Semiotics 9.3, 1999).
This “crisis of meaning,” in turn, bleeds into the well-being of the individual. Panic over a world seemingly devoid of meaning sets in. Despite our near-literal ability to contact one another at all times via several different methods, we face more inward, shielding ourselves behind a screen. Buchanan sums up this irony with humour: “The new communications technology available today would seem to herald communal life of an unprecedented intensity and scale, but instead seems to have inaugurated a kind of solitary existence not known in even the darkest of times” (Buchanan, 398). In short, supermodernity translates directly to seclusion.
However, despite this seemingly bleak diagnosis for the current Western world, there seems to be an absence of legitimate dire prognoses. Augé argues that the collective fear of a meaningless world is not substantiated; rather, the true side effect of supermodernity, he says, is that, “we feel the need for an explicit and intense daily need to give [the world] meaning” (Buchanan, 394).
French artist Sophie Calle (born 1953) demonstrates this sense of isolation within the individual—and the supermodern desperation to imbue everyday life with special significance—in her 1979 work Suite Vénitienne. For thirteen days, Calle trailed a virtual stranger (dubbed “Henri B.”) through Venice, Italy, furtively photographing him from afar, her behavior growing more intrusive as time progressed.
Donned in disguises and armed with camera and notebook, Calle tracked Henri B. throughout the labyrinth-like city, her feelings slowly beginning to resemble those of love despite constant self-reminders that her stalking was for the project’s sake and not her own. Calle’s behavior grew increasingly bizarre: at one point she attempted to rent the very hotel room he had recently vacated in hopes of “sharing” his bed (S. Morgan, Frieze, January 1992).
French writer (and Calle-collaborator) Jean Baudrillard assessed Suite Vénitienne in his essay, “Please Follow Me” (J. Baudrillard, Catalogue essay. “Please Follow Me,” By Sophie Calle. Suite Vénitienne/Please Follow Me. Paris: Edition de l’etoile, 1983). He identified the sense of existential disarray accompanied by supermodern life: “ … following people at random on the street for one hour, two hours, in unordered sequences – the idea that people’s lives are haphazard paths that have no meaning and lead nowhere and which, for that very reason, are ‘curious’” (Baudrillard, 76). Here, Baudrillard is not suggesting that the act of following is a symptom of the emotional agitation; rather, he is saying the possible consideration of lives as “haphazard” or meaningless is the issue. This aligns directly with Augé’s position that the individual feels a need to inject emotional depth into every moment out of fear that contemporary life is empty.
It is because of this inner turmoil, Baudrillard argues, that by clandestinely trailing Henri B. through the streets of Venice, Calle is in actuality relieving her subject of supermodernity’s internal stresses (he poetically likens Calle to a shadow’s protection from the sun). Of this reprieve, Baudrillard explains, “it is to watch over his life without him knowing it. It is to relieve him of that existential burden, the responsibility for his own life” (Baudrillard, 82). Therefore, instead of a predatory stalker, the artist then becomes the polar opposite: a guardian angel.
Further to this, Baudrillard expands on the mutual benefits both the stalker and the stalked receive. Calle is safeguarding Henri B. through her persistent, obsessive pursuit, and in this, she “simultaneously is herself relieved of responsibility for her own life as she follows blindly in the footsteps of another” (Baudrillard, 82). Because her mind is so intensely fixated on her single duty, she is consequently guided by her devotion, and thereby freed from the paralyzing anxiety in searching for meaning in a supermodern life. Under these circumstances, Baudrillard theorizes that both people are “finally fulfilled.”
As Baudillard wrote of the relationship between Calle and Henri B., “She photographs him. She photographs him continuously. Here the photography does not have the voyeur’s or archivist’s perverse function. It simply says: Here, at that time, at that place, in that light, there was someone” (Baudrillard, 77). Calle was creating a record of Henri B.’s existence, again thereby providing an ailment to supermodernity’s “crisis of meaning:” by deeming him worthy of record, she immediately imbues his life with significance.
Moreover, Calle’s apparently absent ethical code seems to be replaced by an adoption of obsessive rituals; these are used, according to the artist, to combat her “overwhelming feelings of fear or shyness” (A Searle, Art and Architecture: Talking Art I. 1993)—two characteristics that can easily be described as prevalent due to the anxiety that accompanies contemporary society. In a 2014 text published by Institute for Precarious Consciousness, titled “We Are All Very Anxious,” it is posited that contemporary anxiety is a product of the “multi-faceted, omnipresent web of surveillance”.
The text goes on to offer the contemporary phenomenon of social media as a primary source of anxiety: “We need to think about how people’s deliberate and ostensibly voluntary self-exposure, through social media, visible consumption and choice of positions within the field of opinions, also assumes a performance in the field of the perpetual gaze of virtual others”. These words are eerily referential of Sophie Calle’s 1981 work, The Shadow, in which she asked her mother to hire a detective agency to follow her around Paris. In doing this, Calle arguably enacted an early iteration of what was to become social media: a constant presentation of the self, shaped specifically for the viewer.
Furthermore, in Calle’s description of the work’s premise, she says, “[My mother] hired them to follow me, to report my daily activities and to provide photographic evidence of my existence” (Calle, Double Game, 1999). In this sense, The Shadow functions in the same vein as Suite Vénitienne. As previously noted, Baudrillard translated Calle’s persistent stalking of Henri B. as Calle marking a fellow human’s place in time and in the world.
By shifting the focus to herself in The Shadow, Calle herself exemplifies the angst Augé described: in the narcissistic move of hiring a man to observe her, she is proving Augé’s proposition regarding the need for validation via attention years before he asserted it. Additionally, like those steeped in supermodernity’s lifestyle, who use the screen (be it a computer or phone) to both hide and reveal, Calle employs the camera lens as a means of hiding in Suite Vénitienne and revealing in The Shadow.
If Marc Augé is to be believed, and we are indeed living in a supermodern society, it is without question that Sophie Calle’s early work was avant-garde. Her summary of the highly-controversial 1983 piece, The Address Book, can be applied to her early work as a whole: “I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him,” she wrote, “and I will try to produce a portrait of him over an undetermined length of time.” By attempting to deduce the personality of a man through the seemingly mundane, everyday object of the address book, Calle again assigns meaning to the otherwise meaningless. Further, her resolution to remain distanced from her subject throughout her investigation demonstrates what has become an instinctual habit to self-isolate despite a the paradoxical desire for intimacy.
Caroline Elbaor is an independent curator and writer living and working between London and New York City. She received her BA in Art History at New York University in 2012 and is currently studying towards her MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths College, University of London (2017). Her writing has been published online for Art in America, samizdatonline.ro, Curating The Contemporary (CtC), and artnet News. Elbaor regularly contributes to artnet News and has previously curated exhibitions in London and Hamburg.
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Featured image: Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne (Detail) (1980) © Sophie Calle / Adagp, Paris, 2017, Courtesy Galerie Perrotin