Last weekend I found myself at Fort Mason in San Francisco. An old military base, Fort Mason is now home to an assortment of arts and cultural organizations housed in its historic buildings. It’s a beautiful site fronting on the bay, with clear views to the island of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’d come to see a four part exhibition by the French photographer/conceptual artist Sophie Calle. I first encountered Calle’s work years ago at a gallery in New York. That project, The Blind, had stayed in my memory. The work was straight forward and yet incredibly moving. Calle asked people who were born blind what was their image of beauty. She paired two photos, one of the blind person and one an image of the beautiful thing they imagined, with written text quoting the description they’d provided. For one person the most beautiful thing was the child they’d never seen, for another the ocean.
The Last Image
Here it was years later. As an echo of that experience, I found myself walking into a small room by the ocean to view Calle’s series The Last Image. Once again, a pairing of a set of photos and text but this time she found people in Turkey who had lost their sight. She asked them to relate their memory of the last thing they saw before their sight disappeared. Some loses were dramatic, blinded in a fight, others a slow darkening until it was all gone.
The small scale of the room in which the work was displayed worked well with both the size of the works and the intimacy revealed in the private stories of loss. The gallery is in the far reaches of the art center, removed from the larger buildings and easy to overlook. For me, this isolation added to the poignancy of the piece.
Voir la mer
An adjoining room contained five large video projections, part of the project Voir la mer. The translation is See the sea but Calle has intentionally played on the homophones mer (sea) and mère (mother), thus the sea as the mother. For this reason this was the only project that did not contain a title in English.
Both series, The Last Image and Voir la mer, were exhibited in the old Firehouse directly adjacent to the water. From it’s windows waves could be seen stretching out to Alcatraz Island. This location was particularly apt for Voir la mer.
On each screen was a lone individual with their back to the audience, facing the ocean. One at a time they turned to the viewer, speechless, and then the screen faded to white. At any time the viewer might find a screen displaying an individual facing away from the ocean, thus looking at the viewer, while other screens still showed individuals gazing out to sea. The timing among the five screens served as a type of orchestration that connected the separate images. The screens turned to white individually so that there was a movement from five visible images, to four, to three, until there were no images left.
Voir la mer was shot in Istanbul. A city surrounded by water the irony is that many people living in poor neighborhoods have never seen the sea. Like the blind in the room next door they have not seen what surrounds them.
Calle brought these residents to the ocean and filmed the experience, trying to invade their privacy as little as possible. They all seem a little stunned, as if language has escaped them.
So much of Calle’s work is about what is absent or has disappeared, in fact the series of four exhibitions at Fort Mason is titled Missing.
Calle starts each of her projects with a rule or a game-like strategy. What interests me about much of her work is that what could easily be a cold and clinical conceptual investigation manages to evoke powerful emotions.
Next week I’ll discuss the other two projects, Rachel Monique and Take Care of Yourself, that are part of Missing.
The exhibition “Missing” was produced and curated by Ars Citizen.