One of the most important conceptual artists in France today, Sophie Calle was recently featured at the New Orleans Biennial and is currently on view (until Feb. 25 only!) at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. I’ve been fascinated by her work since I first saw Prenez Soin de Vous (Take Care of Yourself) at the Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu in Paris in 2008. When she displayed her autobiographical installation Room at the Lowell Hotel last October, I was there.

The work on display at Paula Cooper Gallery is from Exquisite Pain (2003). As I walked into the gallery and saw the three diptychs in front of me, I realized that I had seen this exhibit before. It was featured in Elles at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There are actually nine diptychs, though only three are displayed at Paula Cooper. The idea behind Exquisite Pain stems from an act of catharsis. After suffering a painful breakup, Calle asked friends and chance encounters to describe their most painful moment. Each person’s story is embroidered on a white linen panel on the right under a photograph that represents an aspect of their memory. These are coupled with Calle’s story embroidered on the left. The photo of the red phone on the hotel bed remains the same, but as you move through the exhibition, you see that Calle’s story becomes shorter and shorter until it disappears completely, representing the end of her pain.

Sophie Calle’s work is easy to relate to because it’s so deeply personal. By exposing her pain and suffering, she breaks down the taboos that make people hide their sadness behind a happy facade. In Calle’s work, the personal becomes universal. The framing of the art is a subtle symbol of this, as the viewer can see his image reflected in the glass. If the ultimate goal of conceptual art is to make the us slow down and reflect upon the larger issues in society, Sophie Calle’s work remains at the forefront.


Exquisite Pain (2003)
Paula Cooper Gallery
521 W 21st Street
New York, NY 10011

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