Memory Speaks at Sophie Calle: Last Seen

 What Do You See? (Vermeer, The Concert), (detail), 2013. ©2013 Sophie Calle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Sophie Calle, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

What Do You See? (Vermeer, The Concert), (detail), 2013. ©2013 Sophie Calle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Sophie Calle, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

It’s funny how an exhibit about absence can feel like a homecoming.

In 1990, while an exhibition of her work was on view at the ICA, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle was interviewed in Boston for the art journal Parkett. She requested that the conversation take place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in front of a painting she loved, Vermeer’s 1658-’60 work The Concert. Only weeks later, that painting, along with a dozen other works of art, were stolen in what’s widely considered history’s biggest art heist—a particularly devastating loss for the Gardner, an institution defined to a large degree by constancy. (Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will famously stipulates that her arrangement of her beloved collection must remain unaltered, or else the whole lot will go to Harvard.)

Museum director Anne Hawley recalls the aftermath, when the Gardner was “crawling with FBI agents” and had to be repeatedly evacuated after attention-seeking criminals called in bomb threats; she herself received threats on her life and was told to vary her routes home after work. It was during this tumultuous time that she heard from Calle, who said that she’d like to come back to do a project about the missing art. “Her call was like an angel,” Hawley says.

Calle spent many hours in the affected galleries, interviewing curators, guards, and other museum staffers about their memories of the missing works. Their widely varying responses form the text of Last Seen… In some cases, the words are displayed within a frame that is the same size as the missing work; in others, a silhouette outlining the absent object—an ancient vessel, a Rembrandt self-portrait only slightly larger than a postage stamp—appears over the words. Accompanying each collection of recollections is a photograph of the empty space once occupied by the stolen art. Completed in 1991, the installation has since been exhibited around the world, in New York, Paris, Rotterdam, Copenhagen and beyond, but never in Boston. Until now.

“The last artist working in this building before Sophie was Sargent,” says contemporary curator Pieranna Cavalchini, who got her first introduction to the Gardner through Calle’s art, years before she dreamed of working at the museum. In a way, Calle’s project marked the unofficial beginning of the Gardner’s artists-in-residence program, which, since its official start in 1992, has allowed artists to live on the property and draw inspiration from the collection. Today the resulting work appears in exhibits in the Gardner’s new wing. That’s where Calle’s Last Seen… and a new companion series, What Do You See?, are on view together now through March 3, 2014, in the exhibit Sophie Calle: Last Seen.

What Do You See? was created in 2012 after Calle returned to museum, which had reinstalled four empty frames from the stolen paintings since her last visit, making their absence fully visible. This time, she interviewed staff and visitors in the Dutch Room, but did not specifically mention the missing paintings. Their words are paired with portraits of anonymous individuals photographed from behind, looking into the empty frames.

An exhibit about absence sounds like it could easily be an empty post-modern gimmick. In Calle’s hands, it’s surprisingly affecting. She’s worked with the subject of loss before—exploring the loss of sight in The Blind, which incorporated interviews with blind people about their definitions of beauty, and the loss of her mother in Absence, currently on view in New York. She’s also frequently enlisted others as collaborators, witting and otherwise—working as a hotel maid in order to photograph hotel guests’ belongings, following a man she met at a party in Paris to Venice and secretly tailing him through the city streets, inviting strangers to read her bedtime stories atop the Eiffel Tower. Here, her amalgams of staff and visitor responses create kaleidoscopic evocations of the missing works, each seen from a dozen diverse and divergent perspectives. Though hints of their identities sometimes surface, none of the speakers are identified, and one is left to wonder whether and how the artist has edited (or even invented) their words.

They share their memories of a painting’s colors, the stories they told themselves about a scene, the thing that always bothered about them about a particular piece. “But of course, Rembrandt was the best-looking one when all the others looked old and sick. We used to call him Robert Redford,” says one about the artist’s cameo among the seasick apostles in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. “What was he doing? It was so arrogant of him,” asks another about the same. One respondent was more focused on the painting’s depiction of Christ: “Everyone’s working to save his neck and He’s the only one who isn’t working. That’s how you know He’s God.”

Someone says of a vessel dating back to the Shang dynasty: “My obtuse masculine consciousness would have just been honing in on the furniture had it not been for the lady in my life pointing it out.” Another says of the Degas drawings, “They just seemed like quick studies that he almost dashed off on a napkin while he was having a glass of absinthe.” The man pictured in Manet’s Chez Tortoni, meanwhile, elicits this: “He’s enjoying life but he’s not just a pleasure seeker. There was a mind at work there.” Responses particularly resonate in the case of A Lady and Gentleman in Black, which had an absence of its own: Comments nod to X-rays that revealed that Rembrandt had painted over a depiction of the couple’s child. One can presume why.

The empty frames, too, spur responses. “My first reaction is that I am looking at screen and all I have to do is wait and it will turn on,” one says. “To be honest, I don’t think it elicits much response anymore. I see a lack of something that I don’t know,” adds another. Someone else counters, peering into the glass of the empty frame, “I see a perfect tribute, better than a reproduction. I see an installation, an invitation for people to sit and look at themselves as a piece of art.”

It’s a wild yet carefully orchestrated chorus that reveals much about the workings of memory, but also about the experience of art itself, laying bare why people respond differently to an art theft than to, say, a bank robbery. It’s not so much the molecules of paint and the gradually decaying canvases that are precious; it’s the responses they’re capable of conjuring in us. Those are what were stolen on that March night more than two decades ago. But as Calle makes clear, they have not been entirely lost.

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