Sophie Calle: Exquisite Pain (Douleur Exquise)
Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan’s unique mise-en-scène adds significantly to the beauty and poetic drama of the work.
At the end of a 92 day voyage to Japan in 1984 Calle was abandoned by her lover, who failed to show up for a planned meeting in New Delhi. Deeply distressed by the break-up Calle could only speak of the journey’s unfortunate ending upon her return to France and began asking others to recount their own most painful experiences.
Through this process of storytelling and repetition, Calle’s pain was slowly alleviated. It was more than fifteen years later, however, that she decided to transform the whole sequence of events into an artwork.
The installation is a mix of architectural design and visual art, introspective and intimate, designed by Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan for Rotonde1.
Calle’s “Exquisite Pain” is a powerful visual and texture narrative recounting foreign travel and loss of love, suffering and artistic catharsis. It is the diary of a journey from Paris to Tokyo, passing by the Transsiberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok, and the tale of a missed rendezvous at the Imperial Hotel room 261 in New Delhi.
“Exquisite Pain” unfolds in three parts, like an opera or a theatrical production.
The first part of the exhibition consists of 92 photographs and ephemera, recording each day of Calle’s trip preceding the missed rendezvous. This diary is presented retrospectively as countdown to the artist’s rejection and despair, each photograph or document stamped with a number indicating the remaining amount of “days until unhappiness.”
Part two is a three dimensional reconstruction of room 261 of the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, the site of Calle’s amorous tragedy, as interpreted by Gehry and Chan.
In the third part the exorcism, Calle’s own story, is juxtaposed with narratives of pain and heartache from others. In this dynamic process of repetition and variation the original tale is transformed and the pain evaporated. Presented as 36 diptychs embroidered on light linen, the left side shows a photograph of the red telephone in the Imperial Hotel room where she received the bad news and a version of Calle’s story, the right the story of someone else’s “worst pain” along with a related photograph.
For the exhibition Frank Gehry and Edwin Chan created a circular labyrinth using reflecting materials that highlights the emergence and fading of thoughts and memories at play in Calle’s work. The scenography explores the dynamics of natural light and specific architecture of the Rotunda.
Rotonde1 is a late 19th Century industrial building that was dedicated to the maintenance of locomotives and coaches. It is 50 meters in diameter with inside heights ranging from 6 to 8 and 11 to 15 meters at the top of the cupola.
The perimeter walls are constructed from yellowish stone, the inside columns are cast iron, the ceiling of the cupola is made up of wooden boards painted grey. It is an impressively vast space with beautiful natural light streaming in through high windows around the whole building.
Sophie Calle is an internationally renowned French writer, photographer, installation artist, and conceptual artist. She is famous for her sleuth-like explorations of human relationships, which led her, for example, to follow a stranger in the streets of Venice and document his every move, or to find work as a hotel chambermaid in order to photograph the belongings of the hotel’s guests.
In her different projects, Calle immerses herself in examinations of voyeurism and identity. Often playing roles or adopting guises, she recasts her own identity to reconstruct or document strangers’ lives, examining the relationship between the artist and the objects of her investigations. Sophie Calle is showing at this summer’s Venice Biennale in the French Pavilion.