Autumn 2005

Emotional baggage and the art of Freud’s soft furnishings

Appointment with Sigmund Freud

By Sophie Calle
Thames & Hudson, £22.50, June 2005

In 1999, French artist Sophie Calle teamed up with Violette Editions to produce the extraordinary Double Game, a monograph comprising a digest of Calle’s most celebrated work to date, including a then recent collaboration with author Paul Auster. Beautifully and inventively designed by Vince Frost, it came wrapped like a present with a lush satin ribbon and large-format pages interspersed with pocket-sized paperback pages from Auster’s novel, Leviathan. It was that rare thing, an artist’s monograph that was actually a work of art in and of itself, a furthering of Calle's vision rather than ‘just’ another exhibition spin-off. After the success of Double Game, Calle and Violette Editions joined forces again to work on Appointment, a book intended to accompany Calle’s exhibition at the Freud Museum in 1999. Eventually, the book’s production was delayed and mid-development, the title was passed to Thames & Hudson, who now publish the finished book. Earlier, in November 2004, they also published another new Calle book, Exquisite Pain, which accompanied an exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York from May to July 2005.

For Appointment, Calle was invited by curator James Putnam to create an exhibition at the Freud Museum. As she explains in the book’s introduction, she only accepted Putnam's invitation after having a ‘vision’ of her ‘wedding dress laid across Freud’s couch’. For the project, Calle placed her own objects throughout Freud's house (and invariably amidst his own objects). What becomes interesting is seeing Calle’s things (for instance, an ex-lover’s letters) in the context of those belonging to Freud (the letters are placed underneath one of Freud’s chairs). The idea of using the history and personality of the space and the objects that occupy it as a way to inform and contextualise her own work further explores the various recurring themes of her work – identity, coincidence, chance, surveillance, documenting and cataloguing experience – to intimate and poignant effect. Unlike Exquisite Pain, Appointment succeeds in communicating these themes and standing its own ground: the book is carefully and delicately designed, bearing traces of Violette Editions’ early involvement and distinctive approach to book design.

Exquisite Pain is a visual record of a trip Calle made to the Far East in 1984. The journey, culminating in what Calle calls the ‘unhappiest moment’ in her life, lasted 92 days and came to an end when her lover left her. The trip is carefully documented in two ways: materially, in the form of travel ephemera (bus tickets, train schedules, photographs, etc) and emotionally, each day is literally ‘stamped’ with the amount of days until Calle’s unhappiest day (each object, photograph, memory is stamped accordingly, i.e. 92 days to unhappiness’, etc.) presenting the viewer with a looming sense of impending 'suffering'. The second half of the book, After Unhappiness’, which originally formed the third section of the exhibit, documents how Calle exorcised her suffering in the aftermath of the breakup, by asking other people to recount their stories of suffering, which include love, childhood and bereavement. This compelling content is unfortunately compromised by the book’s design, which lacks finesse. The stamped pages feel clumsy and careless, where they should feel emotional and sincere and the small format (which should evoke intimacy and closeness), lends the work a sense of distance and inaccessibility.

Although neither Exquisite Pain nor Appointment come close to bearing the same artistic qualities of Double Game, they are however so much more than ‘just’ exhibition catalogues or books produced ‘solely’ as documents of Calle’s latest projects. What makes these books interesting, like Calle's previous books, is that they strive to be an extension of her work, running in tandem with (as opposed to existing exclusively as documents or products of) their derivative exhibitions. Appointment certainly succeeds in doing this, while Exquisite Pain does not. For Calle, an artist who has worked with film, installation, photography, text, and frequently with the book form, it increasingly seems that she uses her books as a specific prism through which to consider the re-production, re-presentation and re-examination of her work. In the case of Double Game, she managed successfully to create an altogether new piece of work. With Exquisite Pain, like her books prior to Double Game, she regrettably falls short. But with Appointment, she has succeeded in producing a beautiful book that revisits a six-year-old exhibition with freshness and originality.

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