Sunday, 16 September 2007



(First published 22nd October 2006)

Both artists are classified as Conceptual artists and reproductions of their work present special problems for adequate representation. Links to this entry thus provide at best details of works and additional information. Still, comparisons can be made, aspects of their styles discerned, a little more of the unhelpful umbrella term of Conceptual Art understood.

The comparison is hardly new or surprising, in many ways irresistible. Both women are drawn to intensely autobiographical topics, are often accused of narcissism, self-promotion and bathos. Yet one is cool, dry and remote, favours objective and prosaic records, pictorial and verbal, even of private or psychological events, insists upon a slickness or tastefulness of presentation, while the other is uncool and intimate, favours the immediate, the bodily and the informal, insists upon physical presence as an index to internal or psychological events, accompanies works with provocative commentary. One is French, intellectual, literary and ten years older, the other British, outspoken, sentimental and associated with a wave of artists supported by noted patron Charles Saatchi.

Both draw upon Conceptual art of the late 60s and early 70s and a good part of what makes the comparison interesting is the difference in how their respective works refer or represent. Calle, the older, draws upon American precedents to photographic documentation of events or performances such as Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969) Adrian Piper’s documented performances in undeclared public places, then Bill Beckley’s narrative montages, and obviously the French documentation of Annette Messager and Christian Boltanski, which also began to assemble photographic layouts along more elaborate or fictional lines. But the photography itself aspires to the standards of reportage, rather than experiments in composition or technique. They are never arty photographs. The work sets these standards of recording at odds with their subjects and accompanying texts, either can reveal little, leaves text at a tangent to the pictures. The ‘concept’ is not some elusive, phantom idea, beyond event, picture or writing, but the work that uses all three – in stages or layers.

All of this Calle inherits in the late 70s where she too ‘follows’ random persons in public places, documents work routines with photography and accompanied by texts probing motives and state of mind. What is distinctive is the attention she gives to articulating emotional attachment and biography, in counterpoint to dull photographs. Her texts later urge romance or melodrama but her pictures stress that this is an interior or invisible domain. As such, both text and pictures seem slightly unreal, not just fictional but false. Calle readily admits she does not really ‘give anything away’, either in pictures or text. Both are fictions that finally leave her personality defined by just this determination to avoid real disclosure, which does not leave much personality at all.

Emin, by contrast draws upon performance and installation strands to Conceptual art. Here the precedents lie in the documented performances of Ana Mendiata, Hannah Wilks and Arte Povera installations, with their stress upon fragile and transient materials and the full array of sensory qualities. What is distinctive with Emin is how she uses these means to stand for her troubled personality, rather than as a typical woman, or feminist of an earlier generation. Emin typically gathers materials into a brief shelter, a tent,a bed, a cramped studio for her farewell to painting, more recently, a makeshift tower. Each records the impact of her presence, her recent history, compiles her needs and wants, but tellingly undercuts any more acute psychological content. The installations display the slovenly or immature rather than profound or tragic. So the disparity between Emin’s public confessions and installations or photographs is curiously like that between Calle’s photography and texts.

In both cases the work extorts sympathy from the viewer while denying evidence in picture or object. In both cases the personality documented is left severely reduced. Calle will tell us nothing, ultimately she has nothing to tell, Emin confides everything, leaves only a compulsive confessor. Yet their personal shortcomings are not really the point either. Rather, works refer to matters as complex as personality or mood and how we can or cannot treat an installation or layout of photography and text, as symptomatic of some kinds of personality. We learn the limits of documents and personalities from the exercise.

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