Sophie Calle demonstrates a great social awareness. Her work reflects that inevitable Baudelaire phrase, “Poetry is for everyone.”
Ghosts reminds us again of this awareness in a beautifully simple yet challenging project: in 1990, Calle created stand-in art objects for pieces out of museums on loan or temporarily in storage.
She worked with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum to create pieces to hang on the blank walls, interviewing museum guards and officials, asking them to describe the pieces, transcribing their testimonies, and compiling these descriptions onto new canvases.
The result is something very simple–repetitive descriptions of an art object–but enormously impactful.
The descriptions are often funny. On a Modigliani nude: “I remember that my three year old grandson took one look at her and said he recognized her breasts, which is what he pointed out.”
And haunting. A De Chirico: “It’s a chilly painting because it’s so empty. There’s a landscape, a scenic view of some strange things, a masked face, a man looking like a hostage with a sheet over him, a feeling of isolation. That’s all I can remember. It reminds me of a TV show called ‘The Prisoner.’ The story of a man trapped in a ghost town.”
Hopper: “The house reminds me of Psycho, it terrifies me. The shades are drawn. It is dark and scary. You know you are not welcome there. It’s a house whose bell you would never ring. When I was sixteen, in North Dakota, there were homes like that and people were living in them.”
When paintings and objects were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Calle photographed the empty spaces and again asked the guards and staff to look at the absence and describe the missing works.
While these descriptions don’t replace the works, they reach a provocative place on their own:
“I remember chrome green with a lemon yellow and also a yellow ochre that diffused almost a glaze on top of those brighter tones.”
“It was a young man, probably early thirties, facing the viewer holding a glass of, I think champagne, probably just writing out something, wearing a dark top hat and a dark jacket.”
The core of this project hits on the classic aesthetic tension between idealism and materialism: does the aesthetic value of an art object exist in the experience of viewing or does it come from something essentially within the object?
The first perspective is typified by the work of Benedetto Croce, who argued the aesthetic experience is wholly subjective and developed in people. That is to say, the ability to have a meaningful aesthetic experience is learned and while some art works necessarily elicit greater aesthetic response, the aesthetic response itself is what gives art power.
And the second perspective is more closely aligned with Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, who viewed the art object as possessing certain inherent qualities that have artistic value in their ability to engage and act upon the beholder. This is one of the essential precepts of the avant garde: the ability of a work of art to de-automatize life.
Another great element of this project is it’s connection to art and the liminal. Maurice Blanchot argued that art objects exist in varying stages on fruition while they are still imagined (with the imagined piece possessing almost infinitely more valencies that the realized piece). The interesting connection with Ghosts here is the almost transposition of these “realized” pieces back into the conceptual/liminal frame.
Ghosts is a simple project, in an obvious Conceptualist tradition, but it is an attractive and provocative thought experiment.