Calle’s 1989 installation

Calle’s 1989 installation The Blind included photographic portraits of persons who were born blind along with framed texts describing their image of beauty, and her photographic rendering of that image. In Color Blind, produced in 1991, a colour photograph of a man with a white cane facing a painting of grey stripes of colour is juxtaposed to grey panels on which are printed statements made by blind people about what they see and quotes from Richter, Reinhardt and others concerning the notion of monochrome.

Along the way, at least in the more autobiographical work, Calle has replaced the straightforward visual style of the conceptual artist with the more aestheticized one of the modernist photographer. This personal work includes the book Des histoires vraies,  published in 1994, and is made up of photographs coupled with personal reminiscences; some of these works were earlier exhibited as Autobiographical Stories. In contrast to the many stories Calle has solicited from others, in these works she relates her own, all of which refer to psychologically resonant moments in her history. Far from representing a passage away from what has been perceived by some as the ethically problematic work of the earlier photographic “sagas,” Calle’s current projects seem to me to entail the working out of questions of female subjectivity embedded in the photographic “detective” work.

Various aspects of Calle’s current work – the preoccupations with absence and blindness, and the concern with autobiographical revelation – converge in the film made with Greg Shepard, Double Blind (1992-4), a road movie a deux in which the two wend their way from New York City to San Francisco, stopping to get married at a drive-in wedding chapel in Las Vegas. The film is a layering of stills and video the pair shot of one another, Calle’s diaristic musings in French with English subtitles, Shepard’s interior dialogue in English, and their conversations with each other and various hitch-hikers, waitresses and garage mechanics in real time. While the viewer encounters the obligatory American simulacra along the highway, the focus of the film is the freighted relationship between Calle and Shepard. The narrative is punctuated with nightly shots of a double motel-room bed (a configuration familiar from Calle’s L’Hotel series) and her voice-over lamentation: “No sex last night.” Equally accented is Shepard’s relationship to his car, creating a kind of onanistic version of the North American preoccupation with the automobile seen in Robert Frank’s The Americans. The couple’s interaction is tortured – an approach-avoidance dance of power with Calle almost begging for physical attention and commitment and Shepard attempting to deflect her demands. When they finally marry Calle comments that it was only the possibility of getting married in a car that convinced Shepard to go ahead with the wedding – “Let’s face it,” she says, “I owe my marriage to a Cadillac.”

With Calle uttering thoughts like “That’s it. I did it. I will have been married. I won’t be an old maid anymore,” and “One day I’ll forget what I went through and remember only that a man wanted me enough to marry me,” Double Blind can be painful to watch. Several women with whom I screened the film felt that Calle’s almost frantic struggle to drag the reluctant suitor to the (drive-in) alter could not possibly be true, that the film must be meant as a critique of romantic love a la Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. This reading is given fuel by the fact that the film opens with Calle recounting how upon meeting Shepard, she stayed in his apartment alone for two days and found written on his list of New Year’s resolutions the injunction “No Lying,” opening up the possibility that the character of Shepard in the film functions as a kind of alter-ego for the photographer who has been accused of lying herself, of faking projects like L’Homme au Carnet. Calle insists that everything we see in the film is true:

It’s a fiction in the sense that if you take two months out of the lives of anyone and make an hour and a half out of them [you will have a fiction]. It was a choice to privilege the sexual aspect and to privilege the car, [these were] artistic choices that distort reality, but otherwise it’s all true, entirely true. Almost every comment I make in the film I’d made in the car.

Double Blind unfolds like a primer of Lacanian sliding signifiers and unfulfilled desire, as it moves from one night of sexual disappointment for Calle to the next. Even the few months of happiness she experiences after the wedding turn out not to be real. At the end of the film, she discovers that Shepard has indeed been lying to her all along. Under his car seat she finds a garbage bag full of the love letters he had been writing to another woman throughout the marriage, in which he states that he will be free as soon as his three-month trial run with Calle is up.