Sophie Calle

Venetian Suite

1980, 1996

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Not on display
Artist
Sophie Calle born 1953
Original title
Suite Vénitienne
Medium
55 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper, 23 text panels on paper and 3 colour maps on paper
Dimensions
55 parts each: 177 x 239 x 25 mm, 23 parts each: 306 x 219 x 25 mm, 3 parts, each: 177 x 239 x 25 mm, overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by Tate International Council and Tate Patrons 2011
Reference
T13640

Summary

Sophie Calle’s practice is characterised by performances using rule-based scenarios, which she then documents. Venetian Suite consists of black and white photographs, texts and maps that document a journey the artist made to Venice in order to follow a man, referred to only as Henri B., whom she had previously briefly met in Paris. Although Calle undertook the journey in 1979, the texts describe the actions as taking place in 1980. Venetian Suite records Calle’s attempts to track her subject over the course of his thirteen-day stay in Venice. She investigates and stalks him, enlisting the help of friends and acquaintances she makes in the city. Eventually Henri B. recognises Calle, and they share a silent walk. Even after this encounter Calle continues her project, shadowing Henri B. from a distance until his arrival back in Paris.

The work was initially produced in book form in 1983; the same year Calle also presented the work as a sound installation in a confessional booth. In 1996 she configured Venetian Suite as a gallery-based work, the appearance of which deliberately recalls a detective casebook, with texts written in a style that mimics and deconstructs the narrative tension typical of detective novels or film noir. The text begins as follows:

For months I followed strangers on the street. For the pleasure of following them, 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. At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. I decided to follow him.
(Calle and Baudrillard 1988, p.2.)

As the story progresses, Calle’s chronological entries incorporate detached and diaristic tones. In the early days of her stay in Venice, she systematically telephones hotels in an attempt to locate Henri B.; the text exhaustively lists the names of these hotels. In contrast to this detailed, conceptually neutral approach, there are moments when the text reflects the artist’s subjective emotional state. These passages, which are italicised, make explicit a subversive emotional subtext in the work. For instance, Calle describes a child playing in the Piazza San Marco as follows: ‘I watch at length a little boy with a feathered headdress who’s tirelessly chasing pigeons with a knife. I would like to see him kill one.’ (Calle and Baudrillard 1988, p.20.)

The photographs that accompany the text are candid snapshots that document Henri B.’s movements and record the places he visits in the city. Henri B. was a keen amateur photographer himself, and while shadowing her subject, Calle also attempted to replicate the photographs he took. The installation also includes photographs Calle took using a ‘Squintar’ mirrored lens attachment, which allowed her to photograph subjects without aiming her camera directly at them.

The Squintar is one of several props and costumes Calle used in the course of her surreptitious project. She disguised herself using a blonde wig and series of hats, and describes hiding behind newspapers to avoid being discovered by her subject. These details recall the clichés of amateur detective stories. They also allude to the rituals of masquerade; the events of Venetian Suite take place during Venice’s Carnival season when people traditionally dress up and wear masks.

As the project progressed, Calle became completely focussed on Henri B. In her text, she compared her obsessive attachment to her subject to a romantic or erotic passion. In soliciting help from a stranger in her pursuit of Henri B., Calle ‘tell[s] him I’m in love with a man – only love seems admissable’ (Calle and Baudrillard 1988, p.38). Venetian Suite simultaneously suggests and undermines a narrative of desire and seduction, and it is this aspect of the work which French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) concentrated on in his essay ‘Please Follow me’ which accompanied Calle’s book (Calle and Baudrillard 1988, pp.76–87). Calle described the anti-climax of finally being unmasked by Henri B.: ‘What did I imagine? That he was going to take me with him, to challenge me, to use me? Henri B. did nothing, I discovered nothing. A banal end to this banal story.’ (Calle and Baudrillard 1988, p.51.)

Curator Iwona Blazwick has commented that ‘there is something voyeuristic, even predatory’ about the artist’s approach to her subject in this work (‘Introduction: Talking to Strangers’, in Sophie Calle: The Reader, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2009, p.10). Voyeurism is a recurring theme in Calle’s work, also evident in The Hotel 1981, in which the artist returned to Venice and worked as a chambermaid in a hotel, photographing and documenting the possessions of guests without their knowledge (Tate P78300P78303).

Calle’s work, in its explicit investigation of constructed, psychologically charged social scenarios, can be seen as an early proponent of the type of socially engaged practice that influential French curator and critic Nicholas Bourriaud has called ‘relational aesthetics’ (see Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon 1998). Venetian Suite can also be read as an example of conceptual portraiture of an unwitting subject, and as such has photographic precedents in American photographer Walker Evans’s surreptitious Subway Portraits from the 1940s, and Vito Acconci’s systematic Following Piece 1969 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Despite these artistic precursors, Calle has described how her project was originally conceived as a personal exercise. She has said: ‘When I made [Venetian Suite], I did not consider myself to be an artist. I was just trying to play, to avoid boredom.’ (Quoted in ‘Sophie Calle in conversation with Bice Curiger’, in Whitechapel Gallery 2009, p.50.)

Further reading
Sophie Calle and Jean Baudrillard, Suite Vénitienne/Please Follow Me, trans. by Dany Barash and Danny Hatfield, Seattle 1988.
Sophie Calle: M’as-tu vue?, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2003, reproduced pp.85–96.
Sophie Calle: The Reader, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2009.

Rachel Taylor
April 2010

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