Paula Cooper Gallery
“I left for Japan on October 25, 1984, unsuspecting that this date would mark the beginning of a 92 day countdown to the end of a love affair.” So begins Exquisite Pain, Sophie Calle’s suite of photographs and texts centered on the experience of intimate rejection. Created over a period of nearly twenty years, Exquisite Pain uses Calle’s trademark combinations of documentary and fiction, text and photography, not simply to examine those distinctions, but to probe the experience and memory of loss.
The subject of a 2003 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Calle began her career in the late 1970s following strangers in Paris to quell her loneliness (“Paris Shadows”), documenting private journeys in combinations of text and photographs. Her tender treatment of ordinary emotions and events—sleeping, eating, traveling, smiling—lends her mundane subjects a romantic, dreamy quality. Absence and longing pervade in Calle’s narratives constructed out of small fragments and traces of modern life: address books, hotel rooms, and birthday presents. These ephemeral material artifacts lend the projects a haunted quality as they highlight the way we invest emotion in the objects of daily life, a quality Calle underscores in her presentation of her work not only in galleries and museums, but in elegantly produced published editions which rarely exceed the size of a diary.
Recorded in 1984, but first published and exhibited in 2003, Exquisite Pain is divided into two sections. The first half recounts Calle’s trip to Japan through snapshots and anecdotes that took her away from Paris and her lover, and, in hindsight, culminates in the unhappiness of a breakup. There is one photograph for every day of Calle’s journey. Organized chronologically, their subjects range from family members at a goodbye party to rumpled bedclothes in a hotel room, strangers on the train, and assorted official travel documents. Each is imprinted with a red stamp that bears the number of days to unhappiness, counting down from ninety-two. Lined up horizontally along a snaking maze of walls, the photographs form an intimate inventory, a private archive, turned into a fatal narrative of rejection through Calle’s aphoristic text. The accumulative form of the archive is by now a familiar strategy in contemporary art through the work of artists like Christian Boltanski and Gerhard Richter, but Calle’s construction of narratives out of the vast array of images reasserts the subjective and emotional quality of this form of collecting.
The second part of the exhibition presents Calle’s memory of the night her lover abandoned her in a Delhi hotel next to stories she gathered from friends and strangers about their own most painful experiences. Above each retelling of the night in Delhi she spent alone in the hotel room that was supposed to be the site of her ecstatic reunion is the same photograph of the hotel bed and the red telephone where Calle passed the night alone waiting for news of her lover. This is Calle’s representation of the climax of her story; it is only represented in the past tense and in the red telephone. Juxtaposed against the repeated, but evolving story of this breakup are heartbreaking tales of love and death, suicides and car accidents each accompanied by a desolate image of a the central space or object in the story—a blue convertible, a factory, a plate of sauerkraut—the one thing that brings the memory of the pain back to its recipient. Calle’s own story is embroidered on panels of black silk with text that slowly turns from white to dark, illegible grey while the tales of other rejected lovers and abandoned children are embroidered in black on white silk, which slowly sharpens the ache of realizing just how much private pain we carry, waiting to be remembered through the smells and tastes and images of ordinary life.