A friend regularly attended Sophie Calle’s birthday parties in Paris between 1980 and 1993. Each year, he groaned at the invitation. Calle would invite the number of guests corresponding to her age for dinner, preserving their gifts later in glass vitrines.
My friend resented being cast as a player in someone else’s game. That’s something Calle adores. This hypnotically compelling exhibition was inspired by the use Paul Auster has made of her art in his fiction. In his 1992 novel, Leviathan, an artist named Maria employs rituals adopted by Calle: She hires herself out as a chambermaid and follows strangers on the street, recording her actions in words and photographs. Auster also added his own inventions: Maria eats color-coordinated meals and devotes whole days to a single letter. Calle decided to turn the tables, creating works based on Maria’s activities and showing them alongside the art that sparked Auster’s imagination, together with a new project she devised following his directives.
Calle’s early work is filled with a trembling, anxious urgency as she inhabits other people’s lives and sentimental preoccupations. A detective hired by her mother offers evidence of Calle’s existence; a handsome acquaintance clothed in her anonymous gifts becomes an imaginary husband. In contrast, the works made in imitation of Maria tend to suffer from a certain airless conformity, perhaps meant to evoke the constraints of her overweening obedience to fiction. Gotham Handbook, based on Auster’s instructions, is a hilarious, documentary-like slice of New York life. The only disappointment is a recent work soliciting ideas for Calle’s art from the public, which feels like total abdication.
Most fascinating is The Birthday Ceremony, the installation that resulted from Calle’s annual celebrations. I searched the 12 vitrines, trying to identify my friend’s gifts. But among the matador costumes, washing-machine warranties, bouquets of dried flowers, and works by artists famous and unknown, I couldn’t find them.