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Evocative French artist, Sophie Calle, speaks at Mills


Have you ever been broken up with via email? In 2007, artist Sophie Calle received a breakup letter via email and she decided the only way she could move on from the relationship was to turn it into an art piece, by asking 107 women of various professions to interpret the letter.

“I asked each of them to interpret the mail in relation to their own job,” said Calle during her lecture at Mills on November 19th. “For example, the editor at the publishing house corrected the mistakes in the mail…The philosopher analyzed it. The judge judged it. They all interpreted [the letter] in their professional language…and I finished with a lady parrot, who ate the letter.”

Calle is a french writer, photographer and installation artist who taught photography at Mills College. Though many of her projects are slightly comical, such as mailing her bed to a man who wanted to sleep with her, some are more serious, focusing on the concepts of absence, intimacy and vulnerability.

“My overall inspiration is absence. A man unable to see, a woman without her mother. A person who has never seen the sea, a person who I am unable to meet,” Calle said at her lecture.

Calle’s lecture was a mix of planned PowerPoint and informal stories and conversation. She began by explaining one of her earliest projects, where she was inspired by following strangers around Paris, photographing them, and writing about their lives. Eventually, she even followed one to Venice. In another project, Calle found an address book on the street, and interviewed everyone in it about the owner.

One of her later projects was a 1986 piece, “The Blind.” In this piece, she asked two dozen people who were born blind to describe their ideas of beauty. She displayed photographs of the subjects next to quotes summarizing their responses. One girl described a statue of a female form she once touched at an art museum. Another person mentioned a photo of his son.

“The piece about beauty really struck me,” studio art major Nicole Rose said. “It described a relationship between vision and beauty that I’d never thought about before.”

By playing with anonymity and personal space, Calle’s work manages to be distant and deeply intimate at the same time. Perhaps this is why so many people respond to her art.

You can see Calle’s work in her show at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco until December 24.