Back in 1980, Calle - who had recently completed two typically autobiographical works which focused on the collapse of her marriage and on the death of a close friend - began anxiously to contemplate her birthday. What if people forgot her? She would not allow it. So began the ritual whereby every year she was to hold a celebratory dinner. The guests, she decided, must correspond in number to her age, and among them there must always be one stranger.
Offerings ranged from the frankly tacky (pink plastic rosebud, plastic angel earrings) to the practical (Bosch refrigerator, Vedette washing machine, wooden dildo); from the sublime (red satin handbag encrusted with gems, fricassee of crayfish for 37 people), to the ridiculous (Three Stooges comic book and 3-D specs, Stars-and-Stripes wristwatch). Many gave books (including How to Become a More Popular Hostess), and Spain and bullfighting figured large. Gifts of works by chums such as Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager may or may not have been given by the artists themselves. Nor do we know the names of those who copped out and gave flowers, chocolates or who failed to honour birthday IOUs. All gifts were displayed in a cabinet, 14 of which make up The Birthday Ceremony, Calle's first major sculptural installation, now at the Tate.
She broke the ritual when she was away in 1982, 1987 and 1989. Her "1986" birthday slipped from October 9 to May 27, 1987, and in 1989, 1991 and 1992, she invited just 12 guests and no stranger, to meals in Aigues-Mortes, Seville and San Francisco.
In 1993 she recorded: "I decided to bring this ritual to an end. This game, which once reassured me, no longer served a purpose." Gifts for this, her 40th, birthday, included a New York City fireman's T-shirt, a memoir of Leni Riefenstahl, self-portraits by Cindy Sherman, plastic cat's nose with whiskers, a cardboard wallet, a Calvin Klein lace bodysuit, a promise of a gift from Lewis Baltz (honoured in 1994 with a photograph entitled Motel Room, Central California, April 1967), a pagoda "jack-in- a-box" by Jon Kessler, a sculpture in plaster, electric lights, silk, velvet, religious medals, chicken bone and metal by Serene Carone. One "Alan K" gave pearls with the message, "Dear Sophie, Pearls can be a bed, they can be a necklace, they can be lost. Aren't they beautiful? Happy birthday." Of a 15th-century painting entitled Luce de Montfort, Calle wrote: "I had always seen it hanging in my mother's house. My father said they bought the painting together for my first birthday and so it was mine. My mother denied this. Self-interest made me more inclined to believe my father's version. But my mother had been fighting this war of attrition for 10 years: not before she was dead would it come into my possession. Now she suddenly decided that it was a good date to give up the battle. Luce is mine, for my first and my fortieth birthdays." The stranger gave a notebook with blank pages. But, then, what can you give the girl who has everything?
Sophie Calle's `The Birthday Celebration' is at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London W1, until August 16. Tel. 0171-887 8000Reuse content