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Jewish Culture & IdeasContemporary ArtPhotography

Sophie Calle: Public Places—Private Spaces

May 7, 2001–Jun 28, 2001

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle presents work inspired by eruv—the Orthodox Jewish tradition of erecting symbolic borders around public spaces to extend the boundaries of the home. For this work, the artist interviewed Palestinian and Israeli residents of Jerusalem about public places they consider private. The installation is accompanied by a selection of Calle's photographs from Bay Area collections.

about the exhibition

For over twenty years, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle has been fascinated with blurring the boundaries of public and private in everyday life. Using photography and text as her medium and strangers as her subjects, Calle approaches her work much like a detective. For the centerpiece installation of Sophie Calle: Public Places—Private Spaces the artist takes as her inspiration the eruv, a widespread but little-known Orthodox Jewish tradition which symbolically converts public space into private.

An eruv is an enclosure made of poles, string, and wire, erected in and around a Jewish community as a practical solution to the religious prohibition against carrying objects outside of the home on the Sabbath. According to Talmudic law, an eruv transforms the space within it so that residents may move through it as if they were in their own home. Whether it circumscribes a small neighborhood or a large city, an eruv essentially extends the boundaries of what is considered the private domain.

For this installation, Calle visited Jerusalem—a city surrounded by an eruv and also a city whose ownership is bitterly contested. She asked fourteen inhabitants, both Israeli and Palestinian, to take her to public spaces they consider private and to share their personal associations with those particular sites. The places revealed speak not of an especially holy or contested territory, but of locations which could be in any city. Their stories, documented here through photos and text, are of the prosaic and the intimate. As we encounter these episodes we begin to think of the spaces we traverse in our own lives and the ways in which we experience privacy in public space. If Calle approached us, what sites would we choose?

Probing questions of intimacy and identity run through all of Calle's work. She plays with the experience of watching and being watched, often pushing the limits of what is generally respected as private. Works borrowed from local collections offer a glimpse of some of these provocative projects. In "The Sleepers" (1979) the artist invited strangers to sleep in her bed and photographed them while they slept. For "The Blind" (1986) she asked people who have never been able to see to convey to her their ideas of beauty. In "Autobiographical Stories," begun in 1988, she turns the camera onto herself and moves seamlessly between the roles of voyeur and exhibitionist. In each piece the artist utilizes both text and image, leaving meaning to be discovered both in the combination and separation of these two mediums.

We are pleased to be able to bring the work of such a compelling contemporary artist to Bay Area audiences. We thank all the lenders to the exhibition, especially the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Paris—the lenders of Calle's eruv—for supporting a non-traditional interpretation of a Jewish practice. Calle's poetic investigation of this subject among others challenges us to rethink our notions of ourselves and the communities in which we live. In using a Jewish concept as a springboard to explore such universal issues, Sophie Calle's work exemplifies The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM)'s interest in connecting art, ideas, and people through the lens of Jewish thought and experience.

gallery photos

Sophie Calle: Public Places—Private Spaces is made possible by an anonymous donation and the generous support of the Museum's members and donors.

The CJM is sponsored in part by a grant from Grants for the Arts / San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and is a beneficiary of the California Arts Council, and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. Public Programs are made possible by a generous grant from the Simcha Foundation.

Image Credit

Header image: Installation view of Sophie: Public Places—Private Spaces. On view May 7–Jun 28, 2001 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.