What separates those who are sighted from those who cannot see? The Art Institute of Chicago’s recent reconsideration of two of Sophie Calle’s projects implicitly resurrects this potent question, but, as an answer, the art and its mode of installation do not bear the test of time well.
Ever since Calle asked people who were blind from birth to describe their “image of beauty,” the result has courted controversy. Her 1986 project Les Aveugles (The Blind) features stark black-and-white photographs of unnamed respondents to the question, many with disheveled hair, cracked lips, and closed or blankly staring eyes. Accompanying each portrait are phrases from the sitter’s response, which one or more images illustrate. One woman mentions the actor Alain Delon; another names a Welsh hillside. A young boy tells us that “green is beautiful. Because every time I like something, I’m told it’s green. Grass is green, trees, leaves, nature too … I like to dress in green.” Much of Calle’s selected imagery is mundane. She represents green, for instance, with a manicured lawn. Such decisions seem intended to emphasize the contrast between the sitters’ choices and what visitors with vision might be accustomed to understanding as beautiful.
One of France’s best-known conceptual artists, Calle established her reputation by inventing and photographing provocative situations. Having followed and photographed strangers or shot pictures of people asleep in other projects, she describes using the camera in this project to “see without being seen again, but without having to hide myself.” While this approach worked well for Calle in the 1980s, this Chicago exhibition now suggests a missed opportunity to more fully engage the power dynamics at play.
The Blind holds a dubious distinction in the disability community, othering its subjects by asking them to tell the artist about what they cannot see, all the while deploying a gaze that cannot be returned. The harsh and often unflattering portraits sometimes seem to catch Calle’s subjects off guard; the portraits sit jarringly alongside pictures of people, objects, and scenes they identify but will never see. A wistfulness pervades the project. Noting that the color “white” conjures purity, a young man suggests “it’s beautiful. But even if it weren’t beautiful, it would be the same thing.” Reviewers initially called The Blind poignant, even moving. Disability politics today conjure a different dynamic; in fact, even the project’s early exhibition at Luhring Augustine gallery in New York in 1991 prompted challenges that helped shape disability identity in the arts.
The more troubling aspects of Calle’s fascination with blindness were first noted by deaf artist Joseph Grigely, then teaching literature at Gallaudet University, a well-known school for the education of d/Deaf and hard of hearing students. Grigely wrote a series of 35 postcards to the artist, whom he did not know at the time, in which he posed queries and offered thought-provoking reflections while exposing the project’s uneven power dynamics. Ultimately, Grigely pointed out, the work reveals “notso much the voices of the blind as the voice of Sophie Calle.” Calle utterly controls her subjects, not only selecting the quotes and images on display but shaping the project’s very premise. In this way, the project, while presumably about or invested in the blind, has been formed by a sighted artist for a sighted audience. Shaped by such questions of othering, Grigely’s one-sided correspondence ultimately appeared in Parkett art magazine in 1993. In many ways it presaged his own exhibitions of notes and drawings that he uses to converse with hearing people in more mutual-feeling exchanges.
If this background haunts The Blind, the Chicago installation is even more provocative, since the artist asked to have it exhibited with selections from “Because” (2018–21), a smaller more recent series of works. Positioned in a hallway outside the gallery showing her earlier project, these newer photographs also play with questions of vision and narrative. A curatorial wall text notes that, “Instead of speaking through the voices of others, as in The Blind … Calle gives glimpses here of significant moments or decisions in her own life.” Pairing “Because” with The Blind seems only further to bring out the self-amplifying dimensions of both projects. In“Because,” a cloth embroidered with phrases purportedly explaining why Calle made the picture covers each of them; to see the image, visitors must lift the fabric. Thus, an account of why Calle visited the North Pole hides a tranquil twilit fjord. Are these vignettes truly autobiographical? Is this an image of the Arctic? Why should we trust that Calle actually visited the North Pole? Having once declared, “I don’t care about truth,” Calle’s “Because” seems to highlight theatricality and visual gamesmanship. It also makes us question the veracity of The Blind.
At the same time, this curious show forecloses meaningful opportunities for dialogue, redress, or even access. Although the hardcover book The Blind was published in braille in 2012, no such text for blind visitors accompanied this installation. In fact, the museum provided audio descriptions for only 5 of the 23 pieces on view. This absence of materials allowing the project’s own subjects to engage with the work complicates our understanding of vision; while Calle wields her own vision as an act of artistic privilege, we begin to understand that accessing an artwork is not a game, and attending a museum involves more than just “seeing” images. Just who, we might ask, is blind? And why?