Looking at the work that the French artist Sophie Calle has made over the years, it is tempting to assume that she is mad. She stalked a man in Venice and invited strangers to her bed. In New York, she recorded the number of times she smiled at passers by and how often they smiled back. When a lover ended a relationship by email she turned it into a large artwork, inviting 107 women to comment on this intimate correspondence.
Yet, of course, the woman standing in her warehouse home in the suburbs of Paris is no deranged stalker but a charming and eccentric middle-aged woman, her attractive face dwarfed by a pair of large brown spectacles that turn up dramatically at the corners, like wings. She fusses over a cat that stalks through the building, tail in the air, past a taxidermy white dog curled up in one corner and a tiger, wearing a diamante collar, in the other. Stuffed pink flamingoes stand in line to one side of the room. Other than the flamboyant decor, there is no obvious sign of an artist in residence.
As an artist, Sophie Calle does not make work, as such. Photographs appear in her work but she is no photographer – sometimes she pays a professional to take the pictures. Her art, for the most part, can be described as a record of her adventures. Each piece is a document of an event, of some kind of interaction in which Calle engages with the world in her unique way. She explores the boundaries of how we interact with one another and what is – and is not – socially acceptable behaviour. In the Bronx in New York, she asked strangers to take her to a place of their choice, an exercise potent with risk back then in 1980 when, as one of her participants commented: "a white person comes to the neighbourhood, it is either a policeman, a dope peddler or a mistake."
"In my work I do things that I would never do in my life. In normal life I am much more discreet. I am not intrusive. I don't investigate my friends' lives. But if it's a project then it's different," she says.
The first retrospective of her work – from when she began in 1979 to work still in progress – has just opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. During her career she has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA in New York, at the Pomipdou in Paris and in 2007 she represented France at the Venice Biennale. It is quite a feat for someone who did not start out with intentions of being an artist.
She arrived home to Paris in the late 1970s after seven years hitchhiking and travelling through America. She was 26 years old, lost and uncertain of what to do with her life. "I didn't know anybody. I didn't have much energy so I started to follow people just to give a motor to my day. I followed people not for artistic reasons but for a distraction, choosing someone at random," she says. "I started photographing the people I followed. It came really without thinking. I had a diary and started to record who I followed and where they went. I printed the photos in a basement I shared with another girl, Gloria Friedman."
After an entire night of printing photographs, Friedman asked Calle if she could sleep in her bed, rather than make the journey home. Calle agreed and was intrigued. Inhabiting another's bed is an intimate act that requires trust on both sides. She then went out on the street inviting friends, neighbours and people at random to sleep in her bed, each for an eight-hour stint. She photographed them and made notes on each person. At this point, she did not consider herself an artist. She was acting instinctively, following her particular – and peculiar – interests.
"I used to talk to women at the market and one of them came over to sleep in my bed. She was married to an art critic and he visited my house and then invited me to exhibit at the Biennale des Jeunes. Suddenly, I found myself showing at the Museum of Modern Art." These early works were acclaimed by critics and Calle's career began. "My work became art the day it was shown on the wall," she says.
Calle's idiosyncratic ways have attracted some high-profile admirers. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was a fan (he died in 2007). She collaborated with Damien Hirst, who wrote her a long passionate love letter in 1989. He wrote: "Do I love you? Of course I do, your breath in the mornings, the way that your feet curl around mine when you sleep... " Convincing as it may sound, it is not entirely genuine but an art project. "I had never received a love letter, so I asked him to send me one. He wrote me the most real love letter, it was so incredibly invented that I almost believed it," says Calle. She loves these games, where fact or fiction are hard to distinguish.
The novelist Paul Auster based a character, Maria, on Calle in his novel Leviathan. After reading the novel, Calle decided to try and become the character, to recreate the parts of Maria that Auster had made up. Maria had a "chromatic diet", eating food of only one colour on a given day. Monday orange: carrots, cantaloupe, shrimps. Tuesday red: tomatoes, steak tartare. And so on. For a week, Calle followed this regime and photographed it.
"He had used my real life to create a fictional character and I wanted to reverse the process. I asked him to write a character that I could become. But he wouldn't. He said it was too dangerous. He didn't want to be responsible if something happened. He offered me something more simple," says Calle.
Their collaboration was called "Personal Instructions for SC on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked... )". Calle had to smile at and talk to strangers. She had to carry sandwiches and cigarettes to give to homeless people. And "cultivate a spot", which for her meant turning a public telephone box into an attractive place, with flowers, magazines, drinks and free cigarettes. She recorded everything that happened.
What motivates Calle is not possible to say. She herself does not know precisely why she works in this way. "I'm not obsessive," she says, "but I am rigorous. If I have decided that there is this rule or that rule then I am very committed. I don't get bored. I think I have an ability because I believe in the construction of the idea. If it's a good idea then it's exciting. I am interested on how it will stand on the wall."
In 2003, Hirst attempted to analyse her character when she invited him to interview her for the catalogue of her exhibition at the Pompidou. He gave her a series of questionnaires from psychological profile tests – although the form titles, TF-02, 02-4T, U4-M-E, are witty, clever and obviously fake. Fictitious they may be, but Calle filled in the forms and the conclusion fits; "She likes extremes and is highly adventurous, but at the same time does not like to be out of control".
It is a sense of adventure that has pitfalls; occasionally people don't like having artists poke into the intimate corners of their lives. A few years ago, she found an address book on the street, photocopied it and returned it to the owner, referred to as Pierre D. She then visited all the people in the address book, asking them about this man, his character, where he went out to eat. She wrote about him in the newspaper Liberation, which had given her a half page of the paper to fill every day over summer. When Pierre D found out what was going on, he was furious.
"He was very angry. And I did feel bad about it, yes. I was disappointed. All his friends were willing to speak to me about this man. They were all sure that he would love the project. I liked the man, I liked his books, his restaurants, his friends. I started to be in love with him. I thought we would fall into each other's arms and live a love story. I didn't see it coming. So I felt very guilty, although my commitment to a project is stronger than my sense of guilt."
Pierre D took his revenge by publishing a nude photograph of Calle.
In 2007, life became art again when she used an email from her boyfriend, in which he dumped her. Calle asked women to comment on his email in the language of their particular profession. A forensic psychiatrist called him a "twisted manipulator". His character was performed by the actress Jeanne Moreau and a copy editor rubbished his syntax and grammar. The final work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and viewed by thousands of people.
"He didn't like it but he respected the idea. I asked him if he would like to see it and he said he would look when it was finished. The way he reacted was so chic. We became close and now we are good friends. Maybe one day he will do his own version," says Calle.
For now, Calle is working on a project less likely to upset. She consults a clairvoyant, Maud Kristen, who directs her to a place. Calle travels to the chosen location, consulting the clairvoyant along the way for guidance about what to do.
"It's a way to live another life under somebody else. I play with her capacity, although there are strange coincidences. She sent me to Berck in northern France where she asked me to find a memorial to two dead brothers who liked boats. While I was looking at the monument, trying to find two brothers, I received a call from a friend with the last name Berque; he has a twin brother and they both like sailing." She laughs. "Hard to believe no? I'm not lying about it. It was so amazing."
To 3 January 2010 at Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020-7522 7888)