In Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, the artist takes over a Paris mansion full of wild animals. (Stuffed ones.)
Sophie Calle and her guest Serena Carone: Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives, Paris, through February 11, 2018
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“Fish for your ideas from your fishmonger,” recommends an old prefabricated sign Sophie Calle saw in an Arles fish market shortly after her father died, then later bought and placed near the entrance of her current Paris exhibition. Writing in chalk on the sign, menu-du-jour style, the artist briefly recounts how, depressed and devoid of ideas, she went to see Sylvain, her fishmonger, to ask him for his help. In a four-minute accompanying video, Sylvain listens sympathetically to her as Calle describes her plight, but he claims to know nothing about art. When pressed, he says he likes paintings and sculptures, especially the kind that are “well executed”; he has no patience for abstraction, much less the kind of conceptual photographs, films, texts, and installations Calle tells him in an uncondescending way that she herself makes (and is at that moment making with his participation). But he does, he notes, think you can do things with salmon; they used to make shoes out of the fish’s skin. Next to the video monitor appears a sculpture with a school of wax-molded and pink- and black-painted “salmons.” On nearby walls are photographs from numerous different American cemeteries of headstones that say, simply, “Father.”
This jarring combination of mourning and humor, collaboration and imposition, intimacy and abjection characterizes much of Calle’s art in the show, which includes both new pieces and reactivated work from earlier in her career. The exhibition venue, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, occupies an imposing seventeenth-century mansion full of taxidermied wild animals, trophies, and bric-a-brac; in 1967 André Malraux (of Le musée imaginaire renown) turned it into a public institution dedicated to investigating the relationship between human beings and animals. The museum was renovated and extended about a decade ago, and since then a couple dozen artists have responded to the space in shows that usually occupy small parts of the capacious mansion; Paris-born Calle was invited by curator Sonia Voss to take over the whole museum. The resulting exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, allures, ensnares, and slays.
The show’s title appropriates a slogan from a 1960s ad campaign for a French bullet company in which a valet congratulates his gentleman employer for being an excellent marksman. In the French hunting lexicon, doubler means to kill two animals with two consecutive, near simultaneous shots—and in the exhibition Calle repeatedly reflects on the deaths, in 2014–15, of both her father, a well-known surgeon and art collector, and her housecat Souris (Mouse). There is a photographic portrait of her father shortly before his death superimposed over a prose poem/lament about him, whose intimacy is astonishing. Nearby are pictures of black-and-white Souris in life and death. In her accompanying writings, Calle notes that Souris was the “name she pronounced most in her life”; she also transcribes the unintentionally callous words her friends and acquaintances used (in notes, voice mails, etc.) in response to the passing of her animal companion of eighteen years. Calle is almost certainly aware of critiques about man-centered ideas of “nature,” and of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals (not to mention of maudlin sentimentality)—but isn’t interested in them. What she is interested in is mourning and longing; where the exhibition really surprises is by putting mourning and longing in the conceptual frame of la chasse et la nature.
The French noun chasse not only refers to the sport of hunting; it implies (even more than “hunting” does in English) both “chase,” and “dogged pursuit.” These terms aptly describe much of Calle’s artmaking from the late 1970s onward: consider that in one of her best-known early projects (not on view here) she found an address book on the streets of Paris and, after photocopying its contents and returning it to its male owner, contacted many of the people whose names appear in the book, asking them about its owner, eventually publishing over a dozen articles in a major newspaper about him, along with photographs about his imagined daily life. Before “stalking” was a term widely used about human beings, Calle, in her 1980 series Suite vénitienne (a number of photographs from which appear in Beau doublé), followed a man she met at a Paris party all the way to Venice, phoning hundreds of hotels trying to find him, and taking thousands of photos of him on the street from behind and from neighbors’ windows. What made these early projects recognizably “feminist” was their reversal of a hunter’s ethos typically associated with male sexuality (and with male forms of imaging and imagining women). Yet far from merely decrying male forms of desire and scopophilia, Calle openly embraced and exposed her own.
In a parlor room on the ground floor, Calle has covered the taxidermied body of a large bear with a large white sheet. Speakers placed in a nearby cabinet displaying real and whimsical birdcalls play a looped recording of the artist reciting, in rapid-fire fashion, a long list of professional hunting terms. Elsewhere, stunningly beautiful or menacing-looking animals have been punctuated ever so slightly with a Calle photograph or a small personal object. The overall impression is that of an eccentric blue-blood aunt who has come to her ancestral family home and, riffling through just a few things, has managed to commit an obscure sacrilege, transforming a celebration of man hunting animals into a questioning of men and women hunting each other, and being hunted, or haunted, by animals.
In an upstairs room, a series of carefully silk-screened texts in lovely frames hang on the walls. Calle researched a hundred years of personal notices contained in a snooty but surprisingly popular magazine, Le chasseur français (the French Hunter, in its masculine form) and reproduces some of these texts about what “hunters” have been looking for in their women over the decades, emphasizing some of the key, durably repeated terms in red: beautiful, young, intelligent but not too intelligent, and, more recently, pas prise de tête (not too much of a head case/not too emotionally demanding). She similarly reprints several “missed connection” classified ads, in which men who’ve seen women passing by in a train station or public park write into the void in the hopes of finding them. These silkscreens reveal that beneath the tinder of potential seduction lurks the grinder of hopeless longing and loneliness.
Also included in the exhibition is the work of Calle’s friend, the self-taught artist Serena Carone, who created not only the wax salmons and a number of small sculptures of animals that look very much at home in the mansion, but a large, striking ceramic sculpture of a reclining Calle in a flower-covered dress, her arm and fingers covering her face, which Calle has said will serve as her tombstone. In this aspect, too, the artwork of the exhibition is beau doublé: even though few artists are as wide-openly and demandingly “personal” in their work (and words) as Calle is, here she generously shares billing with a much lesser-known artist with whom she happens to share initials. Almost every aspect of this exhibition is, to borrow the words of Calle’s fishmonger, “well-executed,” in all senses of the term.
Nico Israel is a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College. His latest book, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (Columbia UP), has recently come out in paperback. He has published numerous articles on modernist and contemporary literature and literary theory, and over seventy-five essays on contemporary visual art, many of them for Artforum.