What Do You See?
Sophie Calle in conversation with Melissa Harris
On March 18, 1990, one of the most brazen art thefts of all time took place at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Two men dressed in police uniforms made off with thirteen of the museum’s treasures, including Jan Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–60), Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638), and three works by Rembrandt. The violation was devastating to both the Gardner’s staff and the museum-going public. As Pieranna Cavalchini, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, notes, it was as if the institution “had been raped and ravaged.” A year after the crime, in 1991, French artist Sophie Calle created the project Last Seen, a response to the theft that was both poetic and provocative: alongside photographs of the museum’s newly empty walls she hung panels of text—people’s recollections and observations about the absent works. Absence serves as a primal trigger for this artist. Over the years, many projects by Calle have dealt with missing protagonists—strangers, lovers, at times even herself—and with the conundrums of identity and relationships. There is often a cat-and-mouse quality to her investigations and experimental games. (Is it any wonder the artist named her cat Souris—or “Mouse”?) Someone is following, someone is eluding, someone is being tricky, someone is being watched, someone has disappeared. Calle is often her own most malleable medium: playacting and protean identities are her methods; truth and fiction are her playthings. She has been called an “artist sleuth”—the perfect respondent to the Gardner robbery. Twenty-three years later, the stolen works have still not been recovered. In 2013 Calle was invited back to the museum, where she created a new project about the missing works, titled What Do You See? As Cavalchini observes: “I have always imagined [Calle] as a sort of therapist for the museum— although I do not mean to imply that she was a do-gooder.” The robbery was, of course, sensationalized by the media. “It made sense, then as now, to allow the public to see the theft through a cultural lens, through an artist’s eyes.” The new body of work, as well as that of 1991, will be presented at the Gardner beginning October 23, 2013. I spoke with Calle last April about both projects. —Melissa Harris
Melissa Harris: What was the genesis of the original project Last Seen?
Sophie Calle: I had an exhibition in Boston that opened in January 1990 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I visited the Gardner Museum, and I became obsessed by Vermeer’s The Concert. Every time a journalist wanted to interview me about my ICA show, I arranged for the appointment to take place in front of the Vermeer. It was an occasion for me to go back there more often. About a week after my show closed, the painting was stolen. I learned about the robbery because Sheena Wagstaff—she had interviewed me in front of the Vermeer—seemed to suggest at the end of her article that maybe I took the painting…something like that, in an ironic way, obviously. So when I went back to Boston, at the Gardner I saw this absence: no other art had been placed in the space where the stolen work had been.
MH: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will stipulates that the arrangement of the works in the galleries can never be altered.
SC: Yes. And it’s because of her will that I had this idea. It’s because of the will that the absence was so displayed. In any other museum, they would have put something else where the work was missing. So the will was the departure point for the idea, and I proposed a project to the museum—and they immediately accepted, even in a very complex period for them.
MH: How did the concept evolve?
SC: I had already done a similar project called Ghosts, not about works of art that had been stolen, but ones that were missing from collections because they were on temporary loan—first in June 1989 at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and then in October 1991 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So the idea was already more or less floating.
MH: Does it make any difference that Last Seen and What Do You See? address something that has been stolen, as opposed to out on loan?
SC: Yes, there is more feeling—like when somebody dies as compared to just leaving for the month. I did not compare the texts, but I think there is more nostalgia when the work is stolen. It is more intense.
MH: Do you have certain rules or constructs that you apply to each project?
SC: It depends on the project. In this case, when I learned of the stolen paintings, I could see how I could go on with that same system I had started with the works on loan in Ghosts. In 1991 for Last Seen, I asked curators, guards, and other staff members at the Gardner to describe for me their recollections of the missing objects.
MH: What made you decide to revisit this site and the idea now?
SC: Pieranna Cavalchini invited me last year to show Last Seen at the Gardner, and while discussing this with her, she told me there was a change since my last visit: the empty frames were back on the walls. When I saw the new installation, I proposed a new version of the project. When I did Last Seen in 1991, the sense of absence was kind of unclear—just something missing—but now the absence was totally framed. So it made me desire to do it in a different way.
MH: How did you decide whom to interview for Last Seen in 1991, and then for What Do You See?
SC: The first time I asked people to describe the missing paintings, I didn’t ask museum visitors—I asked only people who had very regular knowledge of a missing painting to describe their memory of the work. Obviously, the people who clean it didn’t describe it the same way as the curator, who did not describe it the same way as the restorer. Each one described the missing painting from his own angle. For What Do You See?, I included random visitors to the museum. And I didn’t ask people to describe the missing paintings—I didn’t even mention there was a missing painting. I just asked people: “What do you see?” Which is not the same question at all.
MH: Did you include some of the same people that you had asked the first time?
SC: I don’t think so. Except for the museum’s director, Anne Hawley. But it was not the same question, so I didn’t care if it was the same people. In What Do You See?, I asked a lot of visitors, people coming by, just anybody entering the room. And, for the people working in the museum it was whoever wanted to do it. Pieranna asked around and found five, six, seven people who were interested in participating. I just asked them: “What do you see?” After, if they asked me why, I told them why. Every person spoke about four of the missing works: Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk; Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and Vermeer’s Concert.
MH: Did you interview a diversity of people—in order to have a diversity of responses?
SC: Yes. I did that for the sake of the portrayal. When you do a portrayal, you ask people to describe the whole body, not only the eyes. So to have a portrait through these different angles, it’s the way to have a more complete portrait. When I did the project in 1991, you could kind of see there was an empty spot on the wall, but in the new project, it’s a frame that you see. So now it’s a “work.” What I was interested in is: Do people see the absent work, or do they see a piece of material? What do they see inside the frame? In a museum, a frame is rarely empty. So it’s something very unique.
MH: In 1991, were you interested in how much people actually remembered of the original painting?
SC: I was interested in the poetic picture that appears through, you know, the collective memories of everybody.
MH: Do you have a personal feeling about any of the works that were stolen? Do you care whether they are returned?
SC: That’s my own problem; it’s not part of this project. Yes, I would prefer if the work comes back—just to be able to look at it again. But if I wanted to give my personal feelings, I would be inside the text. Who knows? Maybe I am. If I was in it, and I wanted people to know that, I would say it. So if I don’t say it, it means…that I don’t say it. Maybe everything is invented. Maybe I interviewed no one. Who knows? Since none of the texts has a name attached to it, you don’t know who said what.
MH: Well, one of the texts has a name attached to it: What Do You See? includes the comments of a clairvoyant. How did that come about?
SC: I had made a project called Where and When  with a clairvoyant. I was talking about that project to Anne Hawley at the museum as I was working on What Do You See?, and she said something like: “Oh, you should ask your clairvoyant where the paintings are.” Since I was asking people what they see, it was about vision, in a way. So I thought it would be interesting to know the vision of a clairvoyant.
MH: Did she come to the museum?
SC: No. I brought her photos of the actual paintings that were stolen, and I brought her the photos that I took of what is there now, with the frames.
MH: You pair this text by the clairvoyant with an image of your own presence—your shadow against one of the frames. So we get the ruminations of someone who was not there and the shadow of the artist who is. Why did you make that photograph?
SC: The people at the museum offered me something lovely—a night visit, simply for the pleasure of it. They showed me around the museum with a flashlight. It was beautiful. I just had to make that picture.
MH: When you first walked into the galleries this time, what resonated most?
SC: What surprised me was the mise en scène—how the absence was so staged. It was very striking for me, since my own work—from the first project to the latest one—is often in some way about absence: a man who goes away, somebody who dies, something that’s not there. Then I arrive in a place where the absence is totally organized. It was miraculous in a way.
Sophie Calle’s work will be on view at Paula Cooper Gallery until November 16, 2013; at the Stavanger Art Museum, Norway, until November 25, 2013; and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, from October 24, 2013, to March 3, 2014. Also in 2014, Calle will take part in the Sydney Biennial.
Melissa Harris is the Editor-at-Large of Aperture magazine.
This article originally appeared in Aperture #212, Fall 2013.