Last month I attended the SCMS conference in Montreal. This was a great opportunity not only to share and hear research, but also to take a little mini-vacation in a beautiful city. Luckily, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal had an excellent exhibition by Sophie Calle: For the Last and First Time. The show consists of two major installations, one photographic and one cinematic, both dealing with lost vision or new sights documented through interviews held in Istanbul. In the photo series, Calle interviewed people who became blind about the last thing they saw. In the cinematic installation, she documented individuals’ first ever sight of the sea. Though all of the works were strong, it was this last installation that was particularly affecting.

Sophie Calle, Voir la mer, 2011. Photo by Annie Dell'Aria.
Sophie Calle, Voir la mer, 2011. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria.

Voir la mer (2011) is a multi-channel video installation with the overwhelming sound of ocean waves crashing in on a beach. Filmed in Istanbul, Calle found men and women from central Turkey who had never in their lives seen the ocean. She positioned her camera behind them as they looked for the first time, then each person turned around to face the camera before the image faded to white. Some looked longer than others, and their reacting faces similarly varied in intensity, making the installation’s screens at times consistent and at others varied. One of the most emotional films featured the reaction of an old man who was moved to tears (video clip available on this review).

What makes this piece so effective is how it oscillates between research-based conceptual art, portraiture, and a cinematic exploration of the sublime. The initial shots use the trope of the Ruckenfigur, a German term for a rear-facing figure who can serve as an avatar for the viewer. Used often by nineteenth-century romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, the Ruckenfigur suggests a romantic encounter with the environment that is potentially transformative and experienced individually. The individual overwhelmed by the landscape evokes both the beauty and immensity of nature, key components of the concept of the sublime.

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) graces a number of book covers from textbooks on Romanticism and philosophy to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The inner psychological experience with nature championed by texts of Romanticism is alluded to in Calle’s work, and the overwhelming sound of the ocean further transports the viewer to the beaches where she shot her films.

Sophie Calle, <i>Voir la mer</i>, 2011 (detail)
Still from Sophie Calle, Voir la mer, 2011. Image via

We encounter her short films in a multiscreen installation like those of Isaac Julien or Douglas Gordon, however, and not as individual films. The use of multiscreen not only overwhelms the gallery space and the viewer’s visual field, but reflects the diversity of her participants and departs from the solitary viewing experience of painting. The Ruckenfigur stands in for the viewer, but we experience the view of the sea through the eyes of a set of individuals seeing it for the first time, moving among the screens as mobile viewers in the gallery. Most gallery-goers simply couldn’t fathom going so long in life without ever seeing the ocean, and the multiplicity of screens underscores how privileged this art viewing position is. When they turn around and look the camera in the eye, the viewer is even further transformed, Calle moves from the anonymous to the specific individual and we look into the eyes we were previously meant to look through.

Photo: Annie Dell'Aria
Sophie Calle, Voir la mer, 2011. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria.

As the individuals stare back at us, the camera zooms tighter. We look into their eyes and cannot help but wonder what’s going through their minds. Without any direction, narrative, or dialogue, the films now become moving image portraits akin to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests or the faces in Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain. The conceptual underpinning and art historical reference of Calle’s work, however, layers her portraits emotionally and contextually more than the open-ended slow images of Warhol or Plensa.

Calle’s installation is both melancholy in how it evokes the real conditions of a life lived without viewing the sea and beautiful in its documentation of first encounters with the sublime. She captures the power of visual experiences many of us take for granted and hopes that we will look at the world with newly appreciative eyes.