We've always been rather drawn to the work of French artist Sophie Calle, mainly because it's just plain weird. Over the course of her career Calle has: called up called up every person in a stranger's address book and then reported their observations of him to a newspaper, posed as a hotel chambermaid to document the belongings of the hotel guests, and followed a random stranger around Venice to record his every move. The voyeurism of these works is creepy and disturbing in its extreme invasiveness, yet despite the specificity of her subjects the results are often moving explorations of the pathos and vulnerability of general human existence.
Calle has also never been afraid to expose herself to similar scrutiny. In her latest project Exquisite Pain, she documents the 92 days of her travels through the Far East before a searingly painful break-up when her lover failed to meet her in a New Delhi hotel. Upon her return to France, Calle decided to exorcise her pain by immersing herself in the suffering of others. As she puts it:
I got back to France on January 28, 1985, cursing my trip. When people asked me how it was, I skipped the Far East and told them about my suffering instead. In exchange for this account, I started asking both friends and chance encounters: "When did you suffer most?" I decided to do this systematically until I had managed to relativize my pain by comparing it with other people's, or had worn out my own story by sheer repetition. The method was radically effective: three months later, I was no longer suffering.
The first part of the exhibit consists of all of the ephemera from her trip- passports, tickets, visas, letters - with each item bearing an ominous stamp marking down the "days until unhappiness." The second part documents the results of Calle's exploration of suffering. Calle's own story and reflections are interspersed with other anonymous stories of pain. Each individual's story, hand embroidered on white silk, is paired with a version of Calle's, embroidered on grey silk. The anonymous embroideries are accompanied by a photograph illustrating some aspect of the experience, while Calle's are constantly matched with the same image of the hotel telephone through which she learned of the end of her affair. In the end, the installation both brings together a touching collection of human sadness and provides the viewer with a literal documentation of the process of working through grief.
Exquisite Pain will be on view at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 W 21st Street) through June 25th.