Sight is one of the most powerful ways we absorb the world: from first impressions to understanding another’s body language to imprinting a memory into our brains, most of us experience the world through our eyes. Yet oh, how we take it for granted. Sophie Calle has taken this emotional sense and transformed it into an incredibly moving art exhibit at the Perrotin Gallery, Pour La Dernièr et Pour La Première Fois (For The Last and For The First Time).
Calle traveled to Istanbul for each section of the project. In the first, Voir La Mer, she gathered inland Turks old and young who had never seen the sea before and filmed their first experience. Do you remember the first time you went to the ocean or the sea? The quiet calm, the feeling of smallness and vastness, the sound of the waves omnipresent?
Each person is filmed from behind as they experience this feeling, and one by one they turn to the camera to reveal uniformly calm, content and peaceful expressions – exactly what we all feel when being near the sea. I wished that we could have seen their faces as they saw the sea for the first time, but now that I’ve pondered it more, it’s quite appropriate that they should have that moment to themselves, a private communion with the expanse before them.
The second section of the exhibit, La Dernière Image, features Istanbulians who’d gone blind, many of them suddenly. Calle asked them to describe the last thing they remember seeing, and the results are crushing and poetic. One man describes a childhood field; another the sunrise outside a hospital balcony before the surgery that would steal his sight; another describes the suddenness of a car accident (seeing a mass of white marble hurtling his way from the truck in front of him); a woman describes her husband’s “terribly beautiful” face.
Portraits of the blind and photos illustrating events similar to what they each describe accompany the stories. I can’t speak Turkish and I can barely understand French, but the emotion and poignancy come through loud and clear. I was struck by one man’s account, who couldn’t remember a specific last image besides the light above his bed before he went to sleep. “I didn’t pay attention to such things,” he said.
The two halves of this exhibit clasp perfectly together to show us the intimacy of simple moments, and the gravity of gifts we so often find commonplace.