In 1979, French artist Sophie Calle returned to Paris after several years of travelling. Feeling dislocated from her native city she began to walk the city streets with her camera, follow strangers she encountered –  'For the pleasure of following them', Calle has said, 'not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them'. 

By chance, one evening Calle was introduced to a man who she had followed briefly that same day and he told her he was about to travel to Venice. Calle decided to follow the man and taking  a camera and blonde wig as disguise she took the train to Venice, found out where the man was staying and followed him surreptitiously around the city for several days. This work, Suite Vénitienne consists of a set of black and white photographs that are between documentary, obsession and love affair. The man, who she calls 'Henri B' is seen walking away from her down streets, meeting his girlfriend, going about his day to day life. At the end of the photographic series, when the game is up and Calle is finally spotted by Henri, we see a blurry shot of his hand as he tries to prevent her from taking the last photograph.


Calle's fascination with Henri B is not based on a sexual affair but rather on the opportunity this man has created for her to make work – Suite Vénitienne begins the moment Henri B told Calle he would be travelling to Venice. His words an unwitting and, in the end it seem, unwilling gift to the artist. 

Calle returned to Paris but began to plan another work in Venice, this time around hotels. A year later in 1981 she returned to the city to work (or pose) for ten days as a chambermaid, photographing the guests belongings, evidence of their night-time rituals and trash. The resulting work The Hotel consists of eight photographic and accompanying text diptychs (four in English and four in French) describing both Calle's experience and the imagined lives of the hotel guests she plays detective with. Calle is thorough in her investigations - she uses the guests perfume, takes a pair of discarded shoes ('They fit me..I take them'), catalogues waste in their bins, reads their diaries, eats their food and forms fleeting attachments to the unseen visitors ('He has left his orange peels in the waste basket, three fresh eggs on the windowsill, and the remains of a croissant which I polish off. . . . I will try to forget him. . . . I shall miss him.'). Calle oversteps the boundaries of privacy with an enjoyable charm, reflecting back our natural curiosity and fascination with each other. The intimacy that Calle deploys in the creation implicates the viewer, drawing us into the ambiguous circle of who is the artist, the participant, the subject.


For Sophie Calle - performance, art and life combine to create works that are about Calle's own life, uncovering the lives of strangers and the complexity of living alongside each other. It is also troubling - the viewer can find themselves looking at the work wondering whether an accidental subject of Calle's investigations has ever stood in front of the same works and found themselves. Would they feel pride in the artists interest or discomfort at her nonchalant instrumentalisation of themselves and their idiosyncrasies as subjects in her work.  

Four works from The Hotel series - #28, #29, #44, #47, are currently being shown as part of Tate Liverpool's Thresholds exhibition which will run until April 2013. Part of Liverpool Biennial 2012, this exhibition uses works form the Tate collection to interpret the theme this year of The Unexpected Guest.

AuthorSacha Waldron