Beau Double Monsieur le Marquis

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Sophie Calle (left) and Serene Carone (right) with the stag from the exhibition

Conceptual artist? Performance artist ?  Sophie Calle doesn’t fit easily into any category. She  takes photos but is not a photographer, she makes films but is not a film-maker, she writes texts but is not  a writer and although she uses all these elements to document activities, her art lies not in creation but in simply doing the things she does.  Things which are very bizarre indeed.

I became intrigued by her odd escapades some years ago. These have included finding a lost address book and telephoning all the names written in it; following a man around Venice for a day; working as a chamber maid and photographing things found in the hotel rooms; asking people to sleep in her bed and allowing her to photograph them while asleep and getting her mother to hire a detective to follow her for a day.

If these were a form of game-playing, events took an even stranger turn when the writer Paul Auster created a character, Maria, based on Sophie for his book Leviathan after which  in a circuitous life-imitation-of art, the real Sophie acted out some of the whims of the fictional character.

The stag in red

La Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature is an ideal venue for this exhibition. It is a charming museum housed in a rather grand 17th century hôtel particulier. It contains lots of old hunting and shooting  paraphernalia, antique furniture, some wonderful paintings, walls full of stag’s heads and importantly, an impressive collection of  stuffed animals.

It is so appropriate because much of what Sophie does; voyeurism, following people and getting herself followed, contains an element of stalking. Further her preoccupations with animals and death are well represented in the museum which itself has something of the feel if a cabinet of curiosities. This of course chimes perfectly as we, the onlookers, follow the trail of clues scatted amongst the exhibits in a vain hope of running the artist to ground.

the two clasping a polar bear

The first thing we see on entering is the museum’s huge polar bear mascot. In fact we don’t see it as, ghost-like, it is swathed in a white sheet. Behind it is a display of bird paintings and beside it runs a lengthy text in which Sophie describes the bear with affection, commenting also that the white sheet reminds her of a shroud as well as a wedding veil.

Absence, longing and death are some of Sophie’s central themes and the ground floor is devoted to new works created specifically for this show. These include items relating to the deaths of the three closest beings to Sophie; her father, her mother and her cat Souris. Regarding the latter and with  typical ironic humour, she quotes a message left on her telephone in which a friend says, I am is sorry to hear of your cat’s death but could she ask Camille to pick up some leeks and turnips from the shop on her way home?  There is also a striking image by Serena Carone,  the plastic artist Sophie invited to collaborate with her for this show, of the dead cat in a tiny coffin.

The death of Sophie’s beloved father resulted in her loosing inspiration for a while and a little video tells of how she went to see her fishmonger to ask what she should do. His advice? Salmon.  The central object on this floor is Sophie’s ceramic tomb created by Serena Carone which depicts, somewhat in the Etruscan style, a grieving Sophie surrounded by a series of stuffed animals which represent  her dead loved ones and friends.

the strangled cat

 

The high quality examples of the plastic arts provided by Serena Carone do in fact play a significant role in this exhibition. Through them we are offered something of a visual reflection of Sophie’s weird world; a ceiling thick with bats, a strangled cat suspended from the back of an armchair, a pair of eyes which stare out from a white wall and a huge circle of fish  are but some of the troubling images which remain in one’s mind.

Also of interest on this floor is a notebook with photographs which is  ear marked for a future project. In it Sophie asks visitors to write, “What do you do with your dead?”  Some of the accounts are poetic but one very much in Sophie’s own style, tells how the writer kept her grandfather’s ashes in an envelope until one day she added them to a ragout which she served to her children

On the first floor the first thing we see is the actual polar bear which we thought we’d seen on entering, for here we find ourselves amongst   the museum’s permanent collections. The difference being that Sophie has infiltrated her objects and texts amongst them. They include 38 Histories Vraies, little framed texts relating  telling episodes in Sophie’s life. We also find such things as a black shoe is suspended enigmatically beside a cabinet, a black brassiere hanging from a half-opened drawer and more dramatically, a scarlet net gown draped over a magnificent stuffed stag.

part of Sophie’s work about Venice

On the second floor we see more of Sophie’s own work including  Suite venitienne which looks back to her adventure in Venice. We also find a cabinet containing a selection from the lonely hearts column of a nineteenth century shooting magazine – the search for love being another sort of quest although not a straightforward one. We read that while a number of the applicants require a dowry from a prospective wife, others are prepared to take on a deformed woman or one ‘avec taches’ ie.  who is ‘flawed’.

If it would seem that there is an element of the macabre about this show, I can  assure you that anything of this nature is amply balanced throughout by  humour. Just as it is hard to pin down exactly what Sophie Calle does, it is difficult to explain exactly why this exhibition provides such a rewarding experience. Maybe to glimpse such an original  take on  life and death and all that goes between, as that of Sophie Calle liberates and invigorates one’s own imagination, especially when  so professionally and attractively presented in one of the most delightful museums in Paris.

If you get the chance before it closes at the end of February, go to see it. It is something you won’t forget.

Story and images ©  Patricia Cleveland-Peck

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