Are we all blinded by our sense of beauty?

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

Sophie Calle is an enigma. She is an artist, writer, photographer and filmmaker yet doesn’t work exclusively in any of these areas. She has become famous for her work in photography but her objects and later films have drawn equal attention — work that carries with it the curiosity of a detective who chases ghosts. Invariably, she is known to makes things that are as much about her as they are about others. A reputation clearly described in a recent interview with Stuart Jeffries for The Guardian. When asked her age she then continued to explain the story of her life for “maybe 10 hours” she said. “I can talk about my life endlessly.”

With nearly all Calle’s photographs and installations, their completion only brings with it more stories, revelations, truths and half-truths. “Exquisite Pain,” her first show in Japan nearly 14 years ago, was also held at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. It depicted the end of a 92-day journey to Japan taken in 1984, and how at a stop in New Dehli, her then-lover who had agreed to meet her there, never showed up. As a way of dealing with and healing from this rejection, she asked other women to recount their own tales of suffering and loss and turned their experiences, along with her own, into a book.

She has asked complete strangers to sleep in her bed for eight hours, documenting all that she saw (“The Sleepers” or “Les Dormeurs,” 1979); impulsively chased a man through the streets of Venice, camera and notepad at hand (“Suite Venitienne,” 1979); and returned an abandoned address book to its owner, but only after calling everyone listed to create a faceless portrait of someone she had never met. (“Address Book,” 1983). When “Address Book” was published the owner stepped forward and threatened to unearth some compromising photos of Calle that had been taken years before. That faceless portrait of someone who didn’t take kindly to be so literally exposed suddenly became very clear.

Inspired by a blind man who said the most beautiful thing he remembered seeing was the sea, Calle’s current exhibition at the Hara Museum sets out to ask: “What is beauty?” and “What does it mean to see?”

The show consists of two parts, “Voir la mer” (“See the Sea”) and “The Last Image,” while the entrance showcases a collaboration with Hiroshi Sugimoto (“Blind,” 1999) and Calle’s 2012 book “Moi Aussi” (“Me too”), a 14-year record of all the birthday gifts she has received since 1980 coupled with a list of gifts that former French President François Mitterrand kept a record of during his 14 years in office.

With the determination of a fictional detective, employing vivid photographic and cinematic effects, her observation strives to uncover some kind of truth buried deep within. But, it feels like this uncovering becomes more of a fiction in its own right, the results of which are elaborate. Each piece of text beside an image, for the most, offers no clues and adds more mystery to a process that’s already abstruse. The context of each text on the wall is governed less by the individual she hovers over and more by the contemporary politics and the tales of turmoil in the places she visits. Calle’s stories are embellished fictions, motivated for the most part by the search for other peoples identity.

For “Voir la mer,” people from inland Turkey were taken to Istanbul see the sea for the very first time, while “The Last Image,” showing in the gallery’s upper floor, presents photos of people who were afflicted by sudden loss of sight, their vision impaired by accidents or sudden acts of violence. Predominantly cold and distant, the show is marked by lighter moments. Film shown in the museum’s “sunroom” shows a group of children standing awkwardly in front of the camera. At the end of the sequence they break away and run wildly into the sea. You can’t help but wonder, where each of them will be in 10 years time. It’s anyone’s guess. Recent turmoil in Turkey makes this thought ever more relevant. In those slow moments before the kids turn to face the camera, maybe they, too, are thinking about the same thing.

What those Turkish inlanders see doesn’t necessarily equal a sense of beauty, though there is a purity and honesty of such first-time experiences. But there is little for us, as viewers, to contribute: The experience of suddenly losing sight seems immeasurable when we are asked to consider it by looking at something. Seeing the backs of all those heads gazing out to sea doesn’t give any insight into what it is like to experience something that others take for granted.

And this is perhaps the problem of the work: Visitors need to flip between images and text, constantly looking for help to decipher the works. Images appear interesting, beautiful even, but ultimately ephemeral. The museum’s permanent exhibits, such as Yoshitomo Nara’s drawing room and Jean Pierre Raynaud’s “L’espace Zero,” strangely provide welcome respite from the Calle’s conceptual haze.

Each part of the show is really interesting but it hasn’t been afforded the space to be explored in greater depth. Before you realize it, the show is over. But perhaps this itself is the best definition of beauty: something passing, momentary and unquantifiable. If we were ever pin it down, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. Calle highlights the frustrating truth for us all: for beauty to mean anything at all, it needs to be personal, out of reach, out of sight and ultimately an enigma.

“Sophie Calle, For the Last and First Time” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs until June 30; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.); ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp.