Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, closes Feb 12
While the initial excitement over the new Jubitz Center hasn't worn off yet, it's the center's special exhibitions that promise to keep us coming back for more. Its first offering sets the bar high with Exquisite Pain, French artist Sophie Calle's first show in the Northwest. While Calle's career-long preoccupation with voyeurism has earned her a reputation for being somewhat emotionally callous, Exquisite Pain veers closer to exhibitionism, as the artist grapples with "the unhappiest moment in [her] life."
Entering the exhibit, we learn that the work originated more than 20 years ago, when Calle reluctantly parted ways with her lover after receiving a grant to study in Japan for three months. She spent the entirety of her trip obsessed with their reunion, before learning—in a brief telephone conversation in the hotel room where they'd planned to meet—that the affair was over. Her emotional fallout is parlayed through a series of 21 diptychs, pairing photographs with text embroidered on silk fabric. On the left, we see the scene where Calle received her news: a red telephone on a bedside table. Beneath this image, Calle writes and re-writes the dissolution of the affair, attempting to articulate and consequently silence her grief. As time passes from the event, the texts become more succinct and reportorial to illustrate the fading pain—mirrored by the texts' gradually darkening thread. The right halves of each diptych present accounts of other people's suffering, which range from failed romances and lost loved ones to one interviewee who discovers that he, over the course of a night, has gone blind.
When this show was on display at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, the diptychs were prefaced by a series of photographs and mementos—one from each day of her time in Japan—that literally count down to her impending unhappiness. This prelude added a narrative richness and moral complexity (Calle twice cheated on her lover during that time) that makes the diptychs on display here all the more powerful. But even without them, Exquisite Pain lives up to its title and marks another fascinating turn in Calle's concept-driven work.