Sophie Calle ‘Missing’ evokes emotion

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle once received an email from a boyfriend, telling her the relationship was over and ending with the words, “Take Care of Yourself.” Calle did just that: She gave copies of the letter to 107 women and asked them to “understand it for me.”

“Take Care of Yourself” is one of four projects featured in “Missing,” a comprehensive look at the 63-year-old artist’s work. It is the first time the projects have been presented in the U.S. The exhibition is on display at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture through Aug. 20.

Visitors can pick up a copy of the letter, signed “X,” at the gallery entrance. On one wall, short films play, each displaying various interpretations. Some of the women sing; others, like the late actress Jeanne Moreau, read, injecting their own observations as they go.

The rest of the gallery holds beautifully presented versions of the letter — in one case, as a group of Tarot cards; another, a musical composition. The women come from all walks of life, each dissecting the letter in their own way. There’s a prison social worker, a child, a psychiatrist, a French intelligence officer, an Ikebana master and a musician. There’s also a parrot, who destroys the letter with a few well-placed bites.

Fort Mason is the ideal location for “Missing,” which is housed in three separate buildings and exquisitely curated by Ars Citizen, a Bay Area-based art commissioning organization.

Calle’s moving piece “Voir la mer” (See the Sea), located in The Firehouse, focuses on a group of Istanbul residents and their reaction to seeing the sea for the first time in their lives.

Calle films them standing at the water’s edge. At first, we see only their backs. One by one they turn and face the camera. An elderly man wipes away a tear, his unflinching gaze deep and tender; a group of children jump and splash. It’s an amazing piece, presented on huge wall-sized screens that intensify the experience.

Also in The Firehouse at Fort Mason is Calle’s “The Last Image,” which tells the stories of men and women Calle met in Istanbul who lost their eyesight suddenly. They are haunting tales, with each subject recalling the last image he or she saw.

Visitors will need to take a short walk uphill to the historic chapel to experience “Rachel Monique,” an installation focusing on Calle’s mother. A giant taxidermied giraffe named after her is attached to the wall.

“She was called successively Rachel, Monique, Szyndler, Calle, Pagliero, Gonthier, Sindler,” Calle says in the exhibition pamphlet. “My mother liked to be the object of discussion. Her life did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed where she was dying — I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid that she would pass away in my absence — she exclaimed, ‘At last!’”

IF YOU GO

Sophie Calle Missing
Where: Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F..
When: Noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 20
Tickets: Free; reservations recommended
Contact: fortmason.org/event/missing/

Cathy Bowman

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