Arts: My life as a fictional character

The artist Sophie Calle spent a week in a telephone booth. Why? Because novelist Paul Auster told her to.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's the stuff that some men's dreams are made of. A woman you've had your eye on for years offers herself to you. "I will do whatever you tell me," she says, "for up to one year. Nothing is out of bounds - the most important thing for me is to obey you." At this point, most mere mortal males would be reaching for the year-planner. But not if the woman in question is the French artist, Sophie Calle, and you are the American novelist, Paul Auster.

In his 1992 novel, Leviathan, Auster included a note in which he thanked Calle for allowing him to mingle fact with fiction in his portrayal of the character, Maria, an artist whose work the narrator describes as "too nutty ... too idiosyncratic, too personal to be thought of as belonging to any particular medium or discipline".

This, if you're not familiar with Calle's work, is a pretty spot-on summary. Auster credits his character with some of Calle's more enigmatic art projects from the 1980s: following strangers on the streets of her native city, photographing them from a distance; pursuing one of these strangers to Venice and back again; examining the sleeping habits of strangers she invited to sleep in her bed; calling up every name in an address book she finds to piece together the story of a life; taking a job as a hotel chambermaid to gain access to guests' rooms, the contents of which she secretly photographs.

For such a keen chronicler of strange metropolitan life as Auster, these games on city streets - themselves blending fact and fiction - proved irresistible. But little can he have guessed how his own narrative would unfold. Some artists would have been flattered by the reference to their work, kept a copy of the novel in the house to show friends - that sort of thing. Not Calle. She decided to do a little fact and fiction mingling of her own, the results of which will go on show as part of Double Games, a major exhibition of her work opening in Sheffield tomorrow.

First, she set about getting to know Maria better (that's Maria, the fictional character based on herself, you understand). Maria made art of strange, obsessive rituals as Calle does, but she had some fine oddities of her own - restricting herself to foods of one colour on a given day, for example, and living under the spell of one letter of the alphabet. Calle makes quick, funny work of copying this, as if to let the fictional artist know she's an absolute beginner in the idiosyncratic stakes.

Sticking to a rigidly chromatic diet for a week last December, Calle photographed the unappealing offerings before tucking in with matching plastic cutlery. It's hard to say which day looks worse, the white (fish, rice, fromage blanc and milk) or the pink (ham and taramasalata, washed down with strawberry ice cream and rose wine). But she has the greatest fun with the letter game, dressing up and living life to the letter B, C and W. For B, Calle is transformed into a Bardot-like babe surrounded by cute, furry animals (all beginning with the letter B, of course); for C, she's in a cemetery; and for W she goes for a weekend in Wallonia surrounded by W-inspired objects.

Now on quite intimate terms with Maria, Calle took the fact and fiction game one stage further. "I asked Paul to write the story of a character which I would obey," Calle explains in wonderfully deadpan style, as if this is all completely normal. "Instead of writing about Maria imitating me, I wanted him to say her name was Sophie, that she was 45, lived in Paris and did this and that, which I would obey. I gave him one year of my life."

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Auster didn't take up the chance to take fiction out of the equation. "He didn't do it," says Calle, with the word "wimp" not mentioned, but written across her face, "because it was too big a responsibility." I ask her if she would really have gone through with whatever Auster had scripted. She looks at me as if I am mad. "Yes. It was my proposal. I was ready. But instead he sent me instructions for the amelioration of life in New York which I obeyed for one week."

These instructions included smiling at strangers, letting them talk to her for as long as they liked, distributing food and cigarettes, and cultivating her own spot on the city streets, tending it for an hour each day. Calle chose a phone booth, making it comfy with a chair, small change, reading material, food and drinks, and decorating it with flowers, photographs and paint. "As it was mine, I put in a tape recorder," Calle laughs. Expect those tapes to turn up in an avant-garde extravaganza in years to come.

While it might seem that Auster took the easy option in giving Calle a week's worth of jobs which, at worst, might be slightly embarrassing, the challenge for Calle was tougher than living out a scripted, but anonymous life, for a year. "Everything about it was hard," admits Calle, "because it was not my natural behaviour. I did it as a job, I did it because I said I would obey. The work's more about how I deal with it - it's more about me than usual and it involved me doing things I don't normally do, like talking to crazy people."

This new work, in loose collaboration with Auster, is indeed different in atmosphere from Calle's previous projects. It's lighter in tone, more playful, and obviously ironic. But like all her work, it involves some risk on the part of the artist and the artwork itself is not one precious object in a gallery, but a long (sometimes painfully so) drawn out process. When I ask her why she works in this way, Calle bristles visibly. "I wouldn't enter that level of self-analysis, it's not my job to be my own critic. I just know how things arrive. My work started for personal rather than artistic reasons. After travelling for seven years, I returned to Paris and began following people in the streets because I didn't know what to do with my life, I was lost."

From this aimless wandering came her first art projects, then Calle hired a private detective to follow and photograph her. After the address book project, she was publicly attacked (by the book's owner and critics alike) for intrusiveness, so her work turned autobiographical, culminating in the new work inspired by Auster's novel.

Through it all, there's a thread of voyeurism and impropriety, fact and fiction, sadism and masochism. It's as if Calle, like some latter-day flaneur on the streets of Paris, is still chasing the thrill that eludes us in the ennui of our daily lives but which might just lurk around the next dark corner. She's still fascinated by the danger and unpredictability of urban life which took her to the South Bronx in 1980, which is the only time, says Calle, she ever put herself in real danger.

"I asked people to take me wherever they wanted in what was thought of as the most dangerous place I could go. One man told me to give him my money. He asked very nicely and I handed it to him willingly. He left me enough to get the subway home and then came to the gallery opening." As ever with Calle, fact tends to be stranger than fiction.

Double Games opens tomorrow at Graves Art Gallery and Site Gallery, Sheffield, and runs up until 30 January 1999. In addition, a one-day conference discussing the work of Sophie Calle will be held at Site Gallery on 26 November - call 0114 281 2077 for details. The exhibition will tour to Camden Arts Centre in February