From Curator: Observation / Sophie Calle, For the Last and First Time

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As one in charge of an exhibition, I am in close, daily contact with the artwork. And thus over time I notice certain fascinating aspects that may not have been so obvious in the beginning. And having direct contact with the work during the installation, the things that I realize are often physical in nature. An example of this is The Blind (1999).

The exhibition starts with a work which asked persons who were born blind the question What is beauty? Made in 1986, this work comprises 23 sets of images. One set was chosen for this exhibition, a special version with a photograph of the sea by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a friend of the artist.

The work consists of a portrait of a blind man, his words (“The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was the ocean.”) and Sugimoto’s photograph which is a visualization of the words. The portrait and words are affixed to the wall, while the photograph of the sea is placed on a shelf. It has been noted how Sophie Calle-esque the installation is in its solemnity, with the shelf, simple and white, giving the work the look of an altar.

When I placed the photograph on the shelf with my own hands, what hit me physically was the transitory nature of the image. It seemed to me that the sea that sat on top of the shelf was not a fixed image, but one that could be replaced with another image of the sea. That is, the shelf served as a place at which anyone – Calle, Sugimoto, the viewer – could place their envisioned image of the sea which the blind man had “seen.” Each image different from the others, and indeed different from the one envisioned by the blind man. Sad as it might be, the shelf is a place that represents the absence of a common perception.

At the press conference for the exhibition, Calle said, “All that I wish to say is in the artwork .” But modest though it might be, that 10-cm-deep shelf is a superb device for expressing the theme of “absence” that runs through all of Sophie Calle’s works.

The display of Sophie Calle, For the Last and First Time appears at first glance to be quite straightforward. There are in fact a number of unusual details specific to the artist.
For example, the characters that make up the words for ″see the sea″ in Japanese (voir la mer) on the wall of the first floor corridor. As the series title of the works in Gallery II, these characters would ordinarily be printed on a plate mounted to the wall. The artist, however, asked that the letters be written directly onto the wall using stencils.

As a device for printing, a stencil is a sheet with holes cut out in the shape of the text or figures to be transferred. Normally ink or paint is applied through the holes, but for this show, soft graphite was used instead. This gave the Japanese characters a special quality, such as a mottled look produced by the wall’s subtle surface irregularities. They also retained traces of the graphite pencil strokes, an indication of the effort it took to fill in the spaces a little at a time. These indications, of a flow or fluctuation in time, stimulate ideas in the viewer.

Voir la mer (2011) captures the expression on the faces of people who are seeing the sea for the first time in their lives. It consists of imagery and the sound of waves, but no text, which is unusual for Calle. The visitor first sees the backs of these people, and then as they turn, the visitor takes measure of their emotional state from the expression on their faces.

As the visitor leaves the gallery, still lost in thought, with the sound of waves in the background, the stenciled characters for ″see the sea″ suddenly come into view. Standing there alone, subtly fluctuating on the wall, the characters prompt the visitor to ″see the sea,″ but in a way that reflects not only the experience of the people observed moments ago, but also their own relationship with the sea, as well as relationship between the human race and the sea; for example, What is the nature of this experience? What is this thing called the ″sea″? As a detail of the display, the use of stencils to write the title is a tiny one, but what it triggers is quite large.

In the series The Last Image (2010) displayed on the second floor, persons who had lost the ability to see were asked to describe the last thing that they saw. The installation consists of portraits of 13 persons, their answers and a photographic representation of those answers by Calle. In describing the last thing they saw, the subjects inevitably spoke about what caused their blindness, stories that encompass various accidents, incidents and illnesses, each heartbreaking.

Of the 13 subjects, there is one who is photographed with the sea as a backdrop. Despite the fact that all 13 subjects live in Istanbul and are surrounded by water, his is the only portrait in which the sea appears, forming a beautiful horizon at his back. I realized that this composition was identical to that of the portrait of the blind man in Calle’s The Blind (1999). In that work, a man blind from birth says the sea was the most beautiful thing he had every “seen,” which tells us that the act of “seeing” involves not only the sense of sight. If this is so, then this now sightless man standing with the sea at his back can expect to continue “seeing” rich new images in the future. Indeed, he appears to be doing that now, with ears attuned to the sound of the waves, eyes closed, quietly taking in the ocean air.

If we look back on all the galleries in the Hara Museum, one realizes that these two works, each composed of a blind man and the sea, represent the beginning and the end of the exhibition, and that they are positioned directly opposite each other. The first one is on the right wall of the first gallery, while the other hangs on the opposite wall in the last gallery. Given the fact that absence is a major theme in Calle’s work, these two works and their placement seem to be an expression of Calle’s belief in the possibilities of human perception and imagination and how people strive to compensate for each and every “absence” that arises.

Text: Masami Tsubouchi / Curator