The Savage Detective: On Sophie Calle’s “Address Book”

By Lauren O'Neill-ButlerOctober 25, 2012

    The Address Book by Sophie Calle. Siglio. 104 pages.

    IN A 2008 CONVERSATION between artists Sophie Calle and Jill Magid, Calle noted that L’Homme au carnet (aka The Address Book, 1983) was her only work to date where she “went too far.” “I think that for the guy it was very cruel,” she observed. “But if it had to be redone, I would redo it because the excitement is stronger than the guilt.”

    A tortuous work, indeed — the piece unleashed some major waves for Calle to ride out. In June 1983, she found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs in Paris and decided to photocopy its contents before anonymously sending it back to its owner, whose name and address were listed in its endpapers. Next, she devised a “game,” an essential motif of all her works, which often involves Calle placing herself in challenging emotional and psychological situations and enlisting the participation of others — such as submitting their own scattered memories and/or personal objects at her inquisitive and often whimsical requests. In this case, she contacted the people listed in the address book, one by one, and interviewed them about its owner, “Pierre D.,” who was traveling for work at the time. Calle’s short, deadpan texts about each interaction and an accompanying black-and-white photograph were published daily — from August 2 to September 4, 1983 — by the then-thriving Parisian newspaper Libération. The imaginary portrait produced by the feuilleton series blasted not only Calle into the realm of celebrity stardom, but also its absent subject, who eventually read these pronouncements, much to his dismay. He threatened to sue, and Calle consented not to republish the work until after his death. But he didn’t stop there.

    The art historian Yve-Alain Bois, one of Calle’s foremost critics and champions, has called The Address Book the most “famous” and “spectacular” of all her works. But it’s also been her most underrepresented, and has only recently been published in English with the arrival of this slim volume from Siglio press. (In 2009, L.A.’s Gemini G.E.L. published a limited edition of 45 lithographs based on the original tabloid pages from the newspaper.) The tension produced from seeing this old work as new spawns a few difficult questions: What does it mean for a such a famous artist to have hit such a “low” when her entire oeuvre is based, in so many ways, on always overdoing it, whether through exhibitionism or surveillance or some other risky ploy? Calle is renowned for pushing extremes; why did The Address Book actually hit one for her?

    Before this work appeared in the newspaper, in the early 1980s Calle was known, if at all, for her experimental games such as The Sleepers (1979) for which she individually invited strangers to sleep in her bed with her for eight hour shifts. She observed them, photographed them, and interviewed them — in a sense, she was already manipulating her guinea piglike subjects in real, physical trials at the budding age of 26. In 1980 she had also published Suite Vénitieene — an early entrée for Calle in becoming a pseudo-detective. For 13 days she followed a man, “Henri B.,” around Paris and then to Venice because she was intrigued, or possibly enamored, or maybe just bored. But the path led nowhere: after a brief confrontation between them Calle concluded, “Henri B. did nothing. I discovered nothing. A banal ending to this story.”

    A difference between those works and The Address Book is the amount of publicity involved. With Libération Calle now had a platform — and a bigger one than any gallery could have given her. Curator Sheena Wagstaff has argued that “this piece brought Calle’s art [. . .] into a format which is presumed to tell factual truths.” But Calle wasn’t interested in critiquing journalism or the veracity of photography, nor was she trying to shock people. Still, the journalists were not impressed. She lamented in a 2009 interview with Louise Neri:

    There was a huge discussion because the journalists wanted to know why, as an artist, I was allowed to do something in the newspaper that they were not allowed to do: intrude into someone’s life. Many people liked it because they thought it was a fiction, but when the guy answered and gave his name, proving that he really existed, it became evident that it was not a fiction, and then same people started to really dislike it because of the outrage. Then others, who didn’t like it initially because they thought it wasn’t risky enough, started to like it. It was a complete mess!

    The Address Book is never about one thing. One the one hand it is a simple character study and straightforward conceptual art project (task-based with a priori scheme, black-and-white documentation, and text). On the other, it’s an unsettling confessional story with deeply erotic subject matter. It unnerves readers by striking a balance between submission and control, winding them through a maze of seduction and pursuit only to leave them deprived of fulfillment.


    Calle states her clinical objective in her first post on Tuesday, August 2, 1983: I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances. She will become the nexus in his constellation of contacts, a role only he had played before. In the second entry she calls his house and hears his voice on his answering machine: It rings twice, my heart pounds. A voice answers: “Yes, I’m not here. My name is Pierre D. I’m not at home …” Calle connects these words with a photograph of a room with two chairs, and a telephone on the wall near a doorway. The entries accrue at a quick clip thereafter, almost like a series of brisk filmic vignettes. The network unravels as Calle’s simple system is calibrated after each interview. Pierre is “a Shakespearean character” according to Jacques D.; “He’s not good at condensing ideas,” according to Anne E.; and Sylvie B. says he “wears oversize jackets, checked trousers [. . .] nonetheless all in all, he turns out to be rather elegant.” Charly T. relays one of Pierre’s favorite jokes: “Excuse me madam, can you tell me where the erogenous zones are?" And the woman answers: “I don’t live here.”

    Only a few friends and family members refuse to speak with Calle and in those passages she reveals her own anxieties about the work. On August 17 she writes: Suddenly, I am afraid of what I am doing. Pangs of conscience. But I must continue. I will beg his friends to talk to me. But the more Calle closes in on her subject, the closer she gets, the less we actually learn about him. The acquiescent informers divulge mostly conflicting and confusing stories — non sequitur after non sequitur. He truly isn’t there. But while Pierre D. begins to seem like an object rather than a subject, we learn a good deal about Calle.

    The artist-sleuth seems genuinely infatuated by the 15th interview. On August 24th, she talks with Enzo U. about Pierre’s capacities to love. Enzo states: “For him love is an impossible mission. He’s systematically ready to fall in love, provided that it does not stand a chance. He speaks to me only of his impossible love affairs, but he must have secret ones.” As early as 1992, Calle stated in a discussion with Bice Curiger that she had in fact fallen in love with Pierre D., claiming, “I lost control [. . .] I completely fell in love with that man, I changed my life for him [. . .] I went to live in his neighborhood, only saw his friends, went to eat in the places he liked to go [. . .] when he came back he hated me and I really felt rejected, but at the same time it’s better than real love, because all this was completely fake.”

    Perhaps Calle’s reasoning is that since this is an artwork she wasn’t as hurt as she could have been. She thus asserts that her oeuvre is comprised of several petri dish-like experiments wherein she can test out her emotions, though she approaches these more like a sociologist-philosopher-anthropologist than a scientist. Calle is foremost concerned with doubt, as Lawrence Rinder has aptly argued. (“Calle’s work is based on a need to be reassured, but not necessarily certain, of the existence of things in the world.”) This skepticism, which runs throughout Calle’s diaristic entries in The Address Book, is part of her art ideology, her own belief system. But, of course, her doubts are also always rooted in her tastes, preferences, and critical judgments, which, as we’ve learned from Pierre Bourdieu, correlate to social class, and also provide us with a sense of distinction and cultural capital. Throughout the book Calle simply plays herself — a woman with enough cultural capital to keep the reader interested.


    On September 28, 1983, Pierre D, or Pierre Baudry as he was known in his daily life, wrote an incensed letter to Libération. It outlined his animosity at Calle, denouncing her “Calle-ous and Calle-culating Evidence.” He demanded that the newspaper grant him the right to reply, and so, at his request, a nude photo that was taken of Calle when she was young and working for a photographer was published. Yet, in the picture, her features are masked out, like a criminal on trial.

    Pierre D.’s figurative absence in The Address Book has now become Pierre Baudry’s actual absence. (He died in 2005.) Some 30 years since the works’ inception, it has only been cursorily explained in interviews and catalogue essays, because of (I assume) those pesky legal issues. (For instance, in Calle’s 2007 monograph Double Game only the first and last entries of the serial are presented, along with an image showing a stack of the newspapers in which the work appeared.) A surprising twist came in 1992 with Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan and a character named Maria, who is only momentarily described in the book — in seven pages — and is essentially based on Calle. Maria performs The Sleepers, Suite Vénitieene, and The Address Book, as well as a few other pieces that Auster invented. Perhaps as a way to reckon with her self-professed “guilt,” Calle decided to turn the tables on herself and accomplish these imagined works in the early 1990s. For example, she embarks on Maria’s “chromatic diet,” eating similarly hued foods in a single day (tomatoes, steak tartare, pomegranates, roasted red peppers, and red wine). The artist also spent entire days “under the spell of b or c, or w,” as Auster wrote, and, in homage to Brigitte Bardot, Calle produced the now-iconic photograph of herself as a “Big-time Blonde Bimbo” in bed with various taxidermied animals that begin with the letter B.

    Calle then asked Auster to devise even more situations for her to carry out so that she could effectively relinquish all control (which again could be read as some sort of penance). For Gotham Handbook: Personal Instructions for S.C. on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked, 1994-98), Auster provided her with a few directives — from smiling at strangers to feeding the homeless to living in a phone booth on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison streets in Tribeca. She eavesdropped on conversations that were happening in the adjacent phone booth. Not everyone was nice to her: “125 smiles given for 72 received,” she noted.

    Nearly 17 years later, Calle was back in New York for Room (2011), a project at the Lowell Hotel on the Upper East Side. Unlike The Address Book, this work focused more overtly on her biography; it was less participatory, extreme, and incendiary. I interviewed Calle over the phone a few weeks before the debut of her new piece and though it went well, I could tell she loathes such generalized exchanges. Later on, I stumbled on a routine, back-of-the-magazine interview she gave to Frieze in 2009, and it suddenly became clear why. It was evidence that if you’re going to interview Calle — or anyone, really — you need to be specific, perhaps even overly prepared, and thoroughly engaged. And would you really expect anything less?

    Responding to a series of questions, she dryly protests:

    I should have been a secret agent: if I were secret enough no one would ask me what music I listen to, what books I read, or what art is for. I don’t like to answer questions. At the opening of the show, “Dislocations,” at New York’s MoMA in 1991, I was introduced for the first time to Louise Bourgeois. She told me, drily: ‘If you have any questions for me, ask my son.’ Out of irritation, I said: ‘I don’t have anything to ask you.’ To which she replied: ‘Aren’t you the one who asks questions?’ Indeed. So here’s a questionnaire for you.

    When did you last die? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What became of your childhood dreams? What sets you apart from everyone else? What is missing from your life? Do you think that everyone can be an artist? Where do you come from? Do you find your lot an enviable one? What have you given up? What do you do with your money? What household task gives you the most trouble? What are your favourite pleasures? What would you like to receive for your birthday? Cite three living artists whom you detest. What do you stick up for? What are you capable of refusing? What is the most fragile part of your body? What has love made you capable of doing? What do other people reproach you for? What does art do for you? Write your epitaph. In what form would you like to return?

    So. Any other questions?


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    LARB Contributor

    Lauren O’Neill-Butler’s criticism and nonfiction have appeared in publications ranging from Art Journal to Bitch. The managing editor of, she has also been a contributor to Artforum since 2007.


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