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Sophie Calle’s Art of Translation

“All expression, insofar as it is a communication of mental meaning, is to be classed as language.”
—Walter Benjamin

Words—as titles, captions, descriptions, and the photographic subject—have always been an integral part of French conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s work. When she walked into the cemetery in Bolinas, California, in the late 1970s, it was the words (“mother,” “father,” “brother,” “sister”) engraved on headstones in lieu of names that drew the lens of her camera, and determined the direction of her life. Shortly after she developed the photographs and saw the results, Calle ended her peripatetic wandering to return to Paris and pursue photography.

Over time, Calle developed not only her own photographic language but a distinctive writing style as well. It is concise, sharp, and cool. Each line a knife that cuts straight to the core of vulnerabilities we all carry within us. In the exhibition “Sophie Calle Missing,” presented by Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and curated by Ars Citizen, which groups together four of Calle’s recent projects, the full emotional impact of Calle’s body of work hits like waves, words and images echoing and reinforcing one another.

It is worth remarking that the texts in this exhibition are all translations. From Calle’s mother’s diary entries read by Kim Cattrall, to the breakup email that became the genesis of Take Care of Yourself (2007), to the accounts by the blind that Calle gathered in Istanbul—all of the words which greet the viewer and amplify the emotional dimensions of each image were first spoken or written in a language other than English.

When asked about the translation process, Calle responded candidly in accented though fluent English: “I don’t work alone. I make the translations with a good friend. We send [the texts] back and forth. We play, a lot. Sometimes a line takes six months. It’s like that.” She added, “I always write the texts in French. [But] I have a sensibility in English. I know what I like and don’t like.”

The difficulty of translation is not so much finding the right words but putting them in the right order, preserving the original’s rhythm and tone so that form and meaning remain accurate from one linguistic iteration to the next. Yet in a sense, Calle is not “translating” the texts from French into English but actively participating in their creation in English, assisted—as a surgeon is by the nurse—by her trusted friend. Calle’s incomparable gift, as an artist and a writer, is her ability to distill complex and opposing emotions into a singular image, a few well-chosen words, her sensibility.

So it is telling that there is an untranslated word in the exhibition. In Rachel Monique (2007), which is installed in the chapel at Fort Mason, Calle’s mother’s last word, “souci,” is repeated in multiple forms: as an image fashioned from butterfly specimens, stenciled on a glass panel, woven into the white lace curtains hanging over the stained glass windows. The dictionary will offer up “worry” as an English equivalent to “souci.” But to Calle, to whom the word was addressed, it is an indelible sign, a last reminder of the powerful bond between mother and daughter cut short by that other undeniable force: death.

“Sophie Calle Missing” is free and open to the public at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco through August 20, 2017.