A Flood Nearly Destroyed Sophie Calle’s Artworks. Instead, it Reinvented Them

At Rencontres d’Arles, Sophie Calle unveils her latest installation, ‘Neither Give Nor Throw Away,’ in which she discovers that beauty can emerge from destruction.

As artist Sophie Calle was putting the final touches on her ambitious Picasso Museum retrospective in 2023, an untimely flood ransacked her storage space. Among the works damaged were her seminal series The Blind and photographs she had taken of tombstones – both of which, interestingly, reflect on mortality.

Rather than discard pieces too decayed to survive, Calle crafted a transformation. In Neither Give Nor Throw Away, on now at the Cryptoportiques in Arles, the city’s foundations become a sanctuary where waterlogged artefacts from her personal and professional histories mingle.

Through this curated collection of works in varying states of dissolution, Calle discovers an enduring lesson: that even in imperfection, profound truths can surface.

Chief among the interred are portraits from The Blind, which she began in 1986, persevered but now fragile. As guests wander through the exhibit, Calle’s initial inspiration for the series is shared in the form of a framed note that reads: “I photographed people who were blind from birth, who had never seen, and asked them what they thought beauty was.” As a result of the recent flood, the poetic series is imbued with the coincidence and poetry she admires, as viewers reconsider perception, absence and beauty.

Further in, portraits of The Blind face their profound, personal reflections, illuminated in the dim of subterranean Arles. Through this series, Calle engaged multiple generations in dialogue around sight loss and compensation of senses. By pairing testimony with photographic interpretations, her non-fiction art probes universal questions of visible/invisible and how perceptions evolve.

Sophie Calle, Finir en beauté / Neither give nor throw away. Courtesy of Anne Fourès.

Alongside these works hang relics from Calle’s personal past, condemned to an untidy farewell – a torn wedding dress, sets of keys that no longer open any doors, a pair of cowboy boots, letters from past loves and diary pages, and other weathered mementos, weighted with memory. Finding solace among aged remnants, these artefacts are what Calle cannot give nor throw away.

Completing the meditation on impermanence are the salvaged photographs of tombstones, now decaying, cast upon the floor as if in a cemetery where they gather trickles of moisture which feather down from vaults above. Full circle of this twofold death: that depicted in the images and the works themselves, now prey to encroaching mold’s ravages. Their placement as a mise en abyme offers a deeper reflection on the universal human fascination with mortality’s impermanence.

Arles’ venerable crypts are a fitting salon to shelter the weather-ravaged relics. There, attendees encounter arrangements that evoke a feeling of wandering in a melancholic cemetery, honoring what was lost – or in the case of The Blind, what was never possessed. Calle gently places possessions past their prime among shadows and dimmed surgical lights, morphing the ruins into a shrine for fragments of fleeting existences.

Within the crypt’s shrouding corridors, an atmosphere akin to a place of mourning, Neither Give Nor Throw Away acquires an aura befitting a funeral. The vaulted halls bear testimony to both our mutual fragility before life’s impermanence, and one’s ability to find enduring meaning amid life’s imperfections. Just as Calle has demonstrated through resurrecting significance from damaged works, profundity can be derived from fragility.

Within her installation, Calle ingeniously transfigures personal turmoil into resonant art. Where disruption threatened to undermine significance, she unveiled a fresh avenue for reflection. Through enacting this somber funeral ritual, Calle pays tribute to fleeting moments of beauty and the poetic insights prompted by their survival. In alchemizing disruption into art, her installation reminds guests that change is a painful yet poignant life lesson. Ultimately, it calls for embracing contingency with open eyes, and discerning the profound and delicate beauty of life, even when it seems to come undone.

Neither Give Nor Throw Away is on view until September 29 at the Rencontres d’Arles

Ruth Negga photographed by Tess Ayano

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