The idea that artists can easily resolve their work is a myth — this is the pretext of Sophie Calle’s current show at Fraenkel Gallery (on view through December 24). It’s a heartening admission—that even artists of her stature grapple with completion — but showing works that are technically incomplete has inherent pitfalls. Nothing here is new; it’s all material that has been floating around in the artist’s mind and studio, looking for the right context.
A timeline traces the origins of works in the show, and while she is forthcoming about her uncertain artistic aims, factual details remain vague. The timeline starts with the 1988 back story of Cash Machine, 1991-2003, a series of ATM surveillance photographs that dominate the first gallery. These grainy black-and-white stills stem from a commission from an unnamed bank, though she doesn’t reveal how she acquired the footage. “The images were beautiful but I didn’t know what to do with them,” she writes.
The time-stamped, gridded images of a shirtless young man, a pensive woman, or a handsome man with an opaque expression, have an elusive appeal. They waver between street photography, cinema verité, and surveillance portraits, all of which come with implied narratives. But Calle doesn’t give us much to go on, so they just raise questions—how did she get this material, and is it legal to exhibit it?
She does reveal that an anonymous “security agent” provided the bullet-ridden mug shots of petty criminals used for target practice by unidentified police officers. Calle re-photographed them and applied a tasteful gray bar over their eyes. The images in the series, which is titled Collateral Damage: Targets, 1990-2003, have poignancy, violence, and trashy eroticism– Christian Boltanski meets Larry Clark.
Secrets comprises a framed legal agreement for each half of a couple to tell the artist something unknown to the other, and two safes to store the documents—the piece won’t fully be completed until someone signs on the dotted line. According to the timeline, the idea dates to 1998, but was realized in 2014, and “has nothing to do with the bank photos.”
If the artist can’t quite make the connections, then the onus falls on the viewer—though she does her best to seduce us. Calle builds this seduction into the framework through a decade old video also titled Unfinished, in which she narrates her inability to resolve these works. The trope is quintessential Calle, though the collection of works ultimately seem like remnants dusted off for an exhibition in a pinch.