[July 23 2015]
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. I decided to follow him.
Before she achieved notoriety for using a discarded diary on rue des Martyrs for her gonzo performance, The Address Book (1983), French conceptual artist Sophie Calle archived and photographed a two week excursion through the streets and hotels of Venice. Her purpose, to document the movements of a random acquaintance, Henri B., whom she had met in Paris only days before. The result, Suite Venitienne (1980), a brief diary of her daily walks, costumes, meals and encounters, produced a psychogeographic map of the tourist’s Venice, circumscribed by pensiones, piazzas, vaporettos and blind alleyways. Like her subsequent text, Hotel (1981), in which Calle returned to Venice to work as a chambermaid under the employ of a hotelier, Suite Venitienne adopts something of a cultural anthropologist’s template (refracted through the procedurals of a private investigator) to catalog the banal voyeurisms and tourist phantasms contained in the hotel imaginary.
Tuesday. February 12, 1980.
12:52 p.m. Arrival at the Venice train station. The pensione recommended to me is the Locanda Montín near the Accademia…3:00 p.m. I walk the streets randomly. In the course of our conversation about Venice, Henri B. had alluded to a pensione: the San Bernardino. On the list of hotels that I obtained en route, I don’t find a San Bernardino. That doesn’t surprise me.
During Calle’s first week in Venice, a city she confesses she had never visited previously, the figure of Henri B. remains stubbornly elusive. Because Calle does not have a precise date or location for her subject’s stay, much of her time is devoted to calling upon various pensiones and hotels – of every class and distinction – in the hopes of happening on his address. Much like the tourist, the city landscape becomes, for Calle, first and foremost a network of hotels – portals of entrance, seclusion and renewal from which all residual information is derived. The concealment of Henri B.’s personage is synecdochical of the hotel itself: he is both a participant in and a metaphor of its function of anonymity and transience. He could emerge from its lobby at any moment and checkout on any date. In response, Calle disguises herself in a blonde wig and makeup to obscure their assignation. According to her diary, the city comprises 181 official lodgings, which she sets about telephoning one by one. It is only near the end of this list (Bauer Grünwald, Cipriani, Gritti, Carlton Executive…et al.) that she discovers not Henri B. himself, but traces of his identity from a hotel operator.
Friday. February 15, 1980.
At 6:45 p.m. I dial the number for the Casa de Stefani, a third-class pensione and ask for the one hundred and twenty-fifth time to speak with Mr. Henri B. They tell me that he’s out for the day.
In an essay response to Suite Venitienne titled “Please Follow Me”, Jean Baudrillard writes that Calle’s meticulous stalking of Henri B. represents the seductive potentials inherent in the commonplace. “To shadow another is to give him, in fact, a double life, a parallel existence,” he explains. “Any commonplace existence can be transfigured (without one’s knowledge), any exceptional existence can be made commonplace. It is this effect of doubling that makes the object surreal in its banality…”
Here, the commonplace could be most literally defined as the place from which Calle and Henri B. most commonly (i.e. daily) exit and return. The Venetian suite. Because the pensiones are only a hundred meters apart, as Calle discovers, the buildings themselves shadow one another, the way hotels in many cities’ tourist districts often cluster together. (Calle finds to her surprise later in the investigation that the owners of both establishments are friends and confidantes.)
Though the hotel is the most “common” of spaces throughout Suite Venitienne, Calle omits any particular description of the room she inhabits at the Locanda Montín, and she is never allowed access to the rooms of the Casa de Stefani. (They seem to always be occupied by other tourists.) The lobby is briefly reported to be deep and dark, almost impenetrable to observation. The suites’ banal designs and accouterments, while certain, never avail themselves to the reader, and thus they maintain a surrealist conceit, a “do not disturb”, a closed door; while the rest of the city, its roads and landmarks, are fastidiously mapped and visualized. Part and parcel of the hotel’s mystique is its dissimulative familiarity, its ability to impersonate home in a foreign land. To welcome in transients and also to keep them out. For Calle, the suite is also a negative space, a space of repose and silence where she can remove her disguise and pause the performance.
Monday. February 18, 1980.
10:05 a.m. At last, it’s him. I was pretending to be waiting for someone else at the entryway of a house located between his pensione and the canal. The door of Casa de Stefani opened. He appeared.
Henri B. has finally materialized. Now, Calle follows behind him, uncertain of her destination but fixedly determined on a heading, wandering in circles through the serpentine cityscape like an engrossed flâneuse. Bars, restaurants, churches and antique shops. First one way, then, suddenly, in reverse. She always finds herself landing between Piazza San Marco, the city’s tourist hub, and her own hotel. Baudrillard continues: “[Venice] is built like a trap, a maze, a labyrinth that inevitably, however fortuitously, brings back people to the same points, over the same bridges, onto the same plazas, along the same quays. By the nature of things, everyone is followed in Venice; everyone runs into each other, everyone recognizes each other…” But Calle’s photographs of Henri B. reveal nothing save the non-descript surfaces of a body in the crowd. Another attraction. Another landmark. She watches him obsessively through the peephole of the camera, safely capturing his image from behind, often as he takes photographs himself or is lost in his own tourist reveries. The voyeur’s hall of mirrors. When she attempts to mimic photographs from his own camera’s point of view, the results are peculiar only for their mundanity.
Tuesday. February 19, 1980.
As soon as I’m outside, I see him, sitting on the landing of the Ponte Cavallo, some ten meters to my right. He’s looking at me…Then he speaks: “Your eyes, I recognize your eyes; that’s what you should have hidden.”
When, at last, Henri B. turns the tables on Calle and ambushes her near the Ponte del Teatro o Marco Polo (wasn’t Polo the “first” tourist of the Western world?), the reader holds his breath in anticipation of climax and resolution. For the first time since Paris, they are face-à-face. Calle opens her eyes, the one feature Henri B. recognizes beneath the costume. But they only manage to discuss the city sights in a tourist’s parlance. What have you seen in Venice? The museums? The churches? As much as she desires to know him, they are mutually partitioned by the architecture of their surroundings to be only voyeurs and wanderers. Hotel dwellers. Calle offers to photograph his face, but he demurs. They separate at Piazza San Marco, as the carnival ball commences with throngs of costumed revelers. “What did I imagine?” she writes. “That he was going to take me with him, to challenge me, to use me? Henri B. did nothing, I discovered nothing. A banal ending to this banal story.”
Upon returning to Paris, where Calle has raced via Bologna to arrive simultaneous to Henri B.’s train, she finds him shuffling through the Gare de Lyon. The spell of their excursion, however, has been broken. No longer tourists, hotel dwellers, foreigners, they resume their authentic (i.e. home) lives. She snaps one final photograph of him exiting the station and then he is gone. This time, she does not follow.
Suite Venitienne by Sophie Calle, published by Siglio Press, 2015, is available to buy here
Text Erik Morse