Boy Trouble

In France, Sophie Calle—at least in bourgeois-intellectual, Paris-centric circles—is more or less a household name. Yet, as is the fate of most blockbuster artists, her oeuvre is often flattened into the exaggerated silhouettes of a cartoon.

On Sophie Calle

View of the exhibition Beau Doublé, Monsieur le marquis ! by Sophie Calle and her guest Serena Carone at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris. (October 10, 2017 - February 11, 2018). © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin. Photo by Claire Dorn.

In 2017, amid the peak of #balancetonporc, France’s equivalent #MeToo movement, record-breaking crowds of women, keen for an experience of communal catharsis, passed through Sophie Calle’s Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!—perhaps as foil against the somber cultural malaise elsewhere. The exhibition, a collaboration between Calle and artist Serena Cocone, was hosted at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, in Paris, where among taxidermy wild animals and a fetishist’s array of hunting armory, a selection of Calle’s previous projects, including excerpts from the ongoing text work Des histoires vraies (True Stories) and her 1981 piece La Filature (The Shadow), were reactivated alongside new ones. What might have been an unusual location for the work of an internationally acclaimed artist whose brand chords more with the starry entourages of Fashion Week than with dusty 18th-century archives was, in this case, perfectly apt: Calle, who in Suite vénitienne (one of her earliest works) followed a male acquaintance to Venice on a whim after a brief conversation at a cocktail party, has remained committed throughout her career to exposing and subverting the dynamics of the “chase” that patterns heterosexual life. In a minimally furnished room on the second floor, two new, inter-related series, Le chasseur français (The French hunter) and A l’espère (Lying in wait for), scoured these themes of carnal conquest once more.

Le chasseur français features a curated selection of real-life French lonely hearts ads, all by cis-het bachelors, which Calle arranged in black type as if they were prose poems, then silkscreened and framed. The ads, sourced from back issues of the rural magazine Le chasseur français and the genre’s more contemporary platform, Tinder, include examples ranging from the 19th century to the present day and were grouped thematically under caustic headings such as “Preference for Pretty—Intelligent If Possible,” “Not Poor,” and, symbolic of our contemporary Netflix-and-chill times of haute convenience, “Not Far Away.” Captions originating from the same material also feature in A l’espère, a series of framed color photographs of hunting outposts and evacuated public waiting areas. Made to form a chorus, the adverts take on a universal, almost fabled texture, poignant in their very banality. (Who, indeed, isn’t looking for a “harmonious life without constraints”?) But they also make a collective argument about the way that the lonely hearts ad functioned historically—as a patriarchal tool through which straight men could locate eligible women for marriage. The result is a damning exposé of straight men’s dating tastes and tactics, an airtight dossier of braggadocio and negging over centuries.

Which isn’t to say they were unvarying throughout the years. Calle’s edit reveals that in times of undeniable historical disaster (namely the First and Second World Wars), straight men’s rigorous criteria for women partners grew incrementally less shallow (“injury” and “suffering” were hesitantly “tolerated” from the 1920s onward). Masculine fragility appears sparsely, with one especially arresting entry reading, “Man within the over-50s category seeks to meet a volcano of tenderness, maximum age 40, who is also easy-going.” But, for the most part, the cathexis of specific body parts (“breasts”), desire for moderate but not overwhelming intelligence (“not an academic”), and request, above all, that prospective partners live close by and not be “massive headaches” (“pas prise de tête”) can reliably be plotted over time.

When the series debuted four years ago, rumbles of dissent were beginning to contest national attachments to seduction and flirtation as patriarchal prerogatives. But France had yet to experience Adèle Haenel’s indictment of serial rapist Roman Polanski at the 2020 César Awards; Vanessa Springora’s elegant excoriation of her abuser, the French pedophile-writer Gabriel Matzneff, in her memoir Consent; or French Afrofeminists’ more inclusive responses to #balancetonporc. Calle’s starkly black-and-white presentation of the bloated entitlements of masculine desire seemed to hit a nerve at this particularly vulnerable cultural juncture. With uncanny prescience, Le chasseur français and A l’espère anticipated a deluge of corrections in the country that had long been anticipated but had yet to break through.

In France, Sophie Calle—at least in bourgeois-intellectual, Paris-centric circles—is more or less a household name. Yet, as is the fate of most blockbuster artists, her oeuvre is often flattened into the exaggerated silhouettes of a cartoon. At a recent (outdoor) dinner gathering, I surveyed the French people in attendance about her work, and they waved it away as “funny, but a little crazy.” In the middle of a digital roundtable, one critic, granting a somewhat backhanded compliment, suggested that the fact that she need not read “three doctoral dissertations on contemporary art” to appreciate the “immediacy” of Calle’s pieces was good for the critic’s “well-being.”

Still, “funny, but a little crazy” might better suit Calle’s work than the clutch of lazy Gallic lifestyle signifiers—desire, amour, reverie, ennui—that routinely get assigned to it by Anglosaxon critics. Since her 1979 debut, Les dormeurs (Sleepers), in which she invited a series of strangers to spend one (nonsexual) night in her bed, documenting them in notes and photographs, Calle has consistently made experience-based projects that mock norms of bourgeois etiquette and feminine propriety. More often than not, it is Calle herself who stands at the center of these experiences, a protagonist guided by the French Situationist tradition of dérive (drift), a willingness to surrender to chance, and, at times, a compulsion to go on the hunt or surveil. The work exists first as experience or action and later as documentation, which Calle presents as an exhibition and a book, usually in that order. For the literary-minded, her projects can be understood, perhaps, as autofiction in a visual arts register, insofar as they are always fashioning the character “Sophie Calle.” Lurking within her work are iterations of questions often central to autofiction: Would she have done X if she weren’t planning to make work about it? Does this distinction even matter?

Like the autofictionist, Calle has frequently sieved through her own episodes of romantic disappointment for grist for her projects—one critic labeled her the reigning “queen of ‘breakup art’”—which in her case has also meant confronting the mores of heterosexuality, beginning with untangling Oedipal anxieties of a psychoanalytic thrust (she has repeatedly told journalists that she became an artist to “seduce” her exacting father). For Des histoires vraies she shared a series of short, funny, razor-sharp autobiographical texts, many of them scenes from her first marriage, alongside illustrative photographs, including of the wedding dress she never got to wear, and images of her brief stint as a stripper in Pigalle. (Calle once quipped that she settled on the title to shut down incessant reader questions about whether or not the stories featured in the series “really happened.” “I am incapable of inventing,” she also said in the same interview.) Most of the texts recount experiences of everyday sexism, and the book’s main focus seems to be how gender inescapably freights the tempo of everyday life in contemporary France. Their portrayal of Calle as victim—albeit one who has reclaimed some agency over the situation by repackaging the events as flinty, stylish capsules of narrative intrigue and emotional restraint—deviates from the refusal of feminine passivity in earlier projects like Suite vénetienne and L’homme au carnet (The Address Book), in which she unapologetically chased men and assumed the historically male position of the voyeur.

In several subsequent projects, Calle took up the theme of rejection more explicitly. Her first and only narrative feature film, No Sex Last Night (Double Blind), from 1996, which she made with American artist Greg Shephard, documents the couple’s road from New York to San Francisco, their relationship already on the rocks. Each had a personal camcorder with which to capture the journey, and each produced a wildly different version of the drive. Calle, who was angling for a reconciliation, found Shephard cold and disinterested despite her increasingly desperate attempts for physical intimacy. Austere shots of unruffled bedsheets, each from one of the numerous fleapit motels at which they stayed en route, acidly convey the lack of carnal relations between them. Douleur exquise (Exquisite Pain), from 2004, takes up a different romantic disappointment. After being jilted by a new, much obsessed-over lover, an event she described as the “most painful” emotional experience of her life, Calle invited a diffuse sample of strangers to relate their most acute cases of heartbreak, hoping to exhaust her own distress through the force of blunt comparison.

In Prenez soin de vous (Take Care of Yourself), which was selected for the 2007 Venice Biennale’s French pavilion and is perhaps the artist’s best-known work, Calle took a more slapstick approach to her own obliteration. The catalyst was an out-of-the-blue “Dear Jane” email from her then boyfriend, the French memoirist Grégoire Bouillier, informing Calle of his reluctance to commit to their relationship. He signed off with the insipid “take care of yourself.” Calle subsequently forwarded the email to 107 women from a range of professions and asked them to respond; the late actress Jeanne Moreau, the philosopher Barbara Cassin, a female clown, and numerous successful lawyers, journalists, and copy editors all featured in the project. She also printed out the email and gave it to a parrot, Brenda, who ripped it to shreds. Prenez soin de vous does little to dispel the myth of women who, in the woozy aftermath of being left, consecrate innumerable hours to the ruminative labor of interpretation, painstakingly analyzing every errant x (for “kiss”) or unexpected word. But there is something joyous about the way the project marshalled contributions by women to drown out the platitudes of a male commitment-phobe, leaving in their place a work whose artistic merit far outweighs that of Bouillier’s careless composition.

Le chasseur français and A l’espère are in many ways variations on these same themes: voyeurism, the visual graphing of intimacy, and the specific cadences of alienation within the neoliberal contemporary “everyday.” But in distinction to her earlier narrative-based, anecdotal installations, Calle furnishes neither narrative contextualization, nor personal experience with these works. The artist is deliberately not present, leaving the spectator-reader, somewhat ironically, “on the hunt” for Sophie Calle as much as for their own response to her stimuli. This absence, alongside the two works’ data-driven, archival approaches, makes space in the foreground for concerns that are less individualistic, more systemic in their scope.

As is Calle’s way, a revised version of the lonely hearts project lived on after the exhibition in the form of a book, Sans lui (Without him), which was published last fall.1 A slim, tactile volume, Sans lui threads eerie photographs of hunting posts between a selection of romance-seeking petites annonces typeset much as they were in the exhibition. Laid out as a “flipbook,” with the pages designed to run into one another, the personal dissolves into the universal in Sans lui. Pull-out inserts featuring stickers of wild birds are an homage to the avian character traits of Calle’s late publisher and editor, Xavier Barral—the departed “him” of the title, she has said—and punctuate the publication with a sense of animal inevitability. As with Le chasseur français and A l’espère, Calle remains conspicuously absent from Sans lui but for a single, meticulous image: a self-portrait wherein the artist appears camouflaged as brush. Calle is barely recognizable as she clutches the gnarled branches of an adjacent tree, her signature bug-eyed dark glasses peeking out from under the foliage. The insertion teases the spectator-reader’s desire for Calle’s presence while keeping the artist at a coy, poised distance, perhaps involuntarily reproducing the cat-and-mouse games of seduction the project otherwise critiques. Marked with Calle’s stamp, however disguised, the book version might leave the reader less free to consider their own dating history in relation to the adverts. Running alongside photographs of watchtowers, this image gives the impression of being “watched over” by Calle, whose gaze, even behind dark glasses, parses all.

To the exhibition’s classifieds by men seeking women, Sans lui adds an equal number placed by women seeking men. The women are generally more lucid in their self-appraisals (“neither rich nor beautiful but educated,” “neither cosmopolitan nor pretty”) and tend to set the bar lower than their male counterparts, asking for basics such as sobriety and sanity (“neurasthenic alcoholics needn’t apply”). All the same, some do succumb to shallow desires for physical or mercenary comforts: one ad, penned by a “unique beauty,” unapologetically desires a “patron” to fulfill her “dream of living in the beaux quartiers of Paris” and “not having to work.”

Sans lui neatly splits the personal ads down the middle by gender, the M4Ws on paper in an ethereal pink, the W4Ms on paper in a muted sage green. Other than this variation in color, Calle gives the ads identical treatment, each section broken down further by decade and roughly grouped by theme. In this way, the book may be read as an exercise in gender parity, rendering predatism an equal-opportunity pastime assumed by men and women alike. In a 2020 interview with France Culture, Calle claimed that to have done otherwise would have been “assez pessimiste” (rather pessimistic)—it should be on the reader to decide on which side of the equation the seduction falls.

Although the book retains some of the exhibition’s whimsy, charm, and comic bite, this more binary presentation evokes, at best, an outdated view of heterosexuality as a biologically determined site of mutual asymmetry and alienation, and at worst, the reactionaryism of #notallmen or #womentoo. Calle, who, in the same interview, voiced the opinion that a book should be, above all, a “coquettish thing,” presents a vision of sexuality as folly; as a game that starts out well-meaning enough but ends in murkier confusions of consent with starker notes of conquest. It’s also one that is near-uniformly straight, with an elision of queer courtship rituals, all the women seeking women and men seeking men and nonbinary people seeking nonbinary people and any configuration thereof consistently absent until the final page of the W4M section, where a sole selected ad requests “just a simple relationship, short or long, man or woman unimportant.” Though the inclusion is welcome, it strikes as too thin an addition in a work that, in content and structure, seems to want to map amorous adventures onto the fixed grid of sexual difference.

The sharp cruelty of the heteroromantic fantasy as depicted in Sans lui is the false idea that in following the “right” gendered stereotypes that society prescribes for us, our desires for intimacy won’t languish unheard. In the context of Calle’s past works like No Sex Last Night and Prenez soin de vous, Sans lui could be reimagined as something other than an effort to bow down at the outdated altar of sexual difference. Instead, it might emerge as an exposé of heterosexuality’s increasing unworkability in wider culture, a motif creeping through Calle’s supposedly one-dimensional “breakup art” for quite a while. In recent years, despite its perhaps discomfiting proximity to the term afropessimism, the term heteropessimism—along with the more cosmic heterofatalism—has become the default neologism for this structural unviability. Yet, as Jane Ward signals in her academic study The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, the melancholy skewering of straight culture is not novel; in fact, Judith Butler was the first to speak of how heterosexuality and a deep, abiding negativity come as something of a package deal. As Butler has written, heterosexuality’s repetition and perceived “stability” across generations is predicated on a harsh repression of our more naturally promiscuous and volatile sexual attachments, making heterosexuality indissociable from originary loss, trauma, and mourning.

 Sans lui’s examples of straight women’s own occasional myopia help it avoid the pitfalls of flat-out misandry that have become more widespread in France since Calle’s 2017 exhibition. The aggressive promotion of one sentence from Alice Coffin’s 2020 polemic Le génie lesbien (Lesbian genius), “I will no longer read books by men,” comes to mind, as does Pauline Harmange’s rather more literal-minded pamphlet, I Hate Men, a hashtaggable spin-off of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. But, as Sophie Lewis recently pointed out in an essay on the turned-off-ness of contemporary life, a broader cultural endeavor of loathing men inevitably shores up binaries and erases the nuance of trans experience. In addition, quibbling about whether Calle despises or adores normatively “toxic” masculinity misses the more salient questions posed by her work. Calle’s interest in revisiting these ingrained sexual conventions is less about exploring gender as a fixed mold than it is about clearing space for new templates to emerge. As with Take Care of Yourself, the series started with men, and then became about something more interesting.

In the late aughts, Calle began to move away from the tired templates of romantic disillusionment that had preoccupied her in previous years, beginning with two projects that focus her mother. This was a marked changed for the artist, who had routinely emphasized the influence of her father, an esteemed art collector, on her work, but never much discussed the role of her female parent. In 2007 she made the short film Pas pu saisir la mort (Couldn’t catch death), which documented her mother in the month before her death. For her 2010 exhibition, Rachel, Monique, at the Palais de Tokyo, Calle delved deeper into her mother’s past, tracing the kaleidoscopic contours of her life with diary excerpts, family photographs, and panels embroidered with the last word she ever spoke: souci (worry). (A 2014 restaging of the exhibition at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Res, in Manhattan, included recordings of her mother’s diary translated into English and read aloud by Kim Cattrall.) In 2015 Calle married the artist Laurie Anderson in San Francisco in a celebration of queer friendship, thus reworking the abysmal union with Greg Shepherd. And in 2018, her cat, Souris (Mouse)—until recently her most enduring relationship, without question—was immortalized by Bono and Pharrell Williams, among others, in the eccentric interspecies musical project, Souris Calle. Though Calle has been committed to her current partner, a male architect, for over a decade, her description of their alliance in a recent interview reads like one of her severely circumscribed artistic briefs: “Two houses. . . . We never spend more than one week in a row together. We never do trips together that are more than one week. . . . We do most things separately.” Despite perceptions of Calle’s “girly” public image, her work always comes first, and there seems to be little danger of her being fully swallowed up by the vortex of erotic love.

In 2013 I met Calle—if met is the right word—at the opening of her show Absence at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. At the time, I was processing a breakup of my own that I thought was monumental, and, in quite the bruising parallel, attending seminars on philosophies of pardon and retribution (mainly Derrida’s) as a visiting scholar at NYU. The French companion that I’d sourced to be my guest to the event, knowing that I was a fan of Calle’s, urged me to approach her and to introduce myself. Dressed in an eclectic mix of Comme des Garçons and basking in the rapturous reception of her work by critics, friends, and other champagne-swilling hangers-on, Calle was not exactly approachable, but, in my grad-student naivete, I bounced gauchely over to her anyway. I forget the precise question that I asked, but I can never unhear her enviably brisk, sovereign response, “Je n’ai rien à dire sur cet sujet” (I have nothing to say about that), or unsee the way she turned theatrically away from me on her patent Mary-Jane heels. Later that evening, I may have cried over bad polenta fries, which were modish at the time, at a bar on the Bowery.

Calle’s personage isn’t always particularly likable, or reliable. But she is—consistently, insistently—a protagonist on the stage of her own life. As well as having an uncanny knack for curating found materials that distil the foibles of the age, the fact that she sets, in her own words, the “rules of the game” for her existence is her most compelling legacy. Years after she rejected my question in Manhattan, I continue to follow her, to hunt out Sophie Calle. That she persists in unapologetically making art from her own life and relationships lands, I think, as a relief. Someone has processed their grief more publicly, more embarrassingly, than I have. Someone else needs constraints to survive. You can make something from this, after all.

  1. It also lived on as the series A l’affût (On the hunt), which includes images of watchtowers and of animals photographed at night by highway surveillance cameras. 

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