“Pleasurable moments, I live. Painful ones, I exploit.”
Art Dogs is a weekly dispatch introducing the pets—dogs, yes!, but also cats, lizards, marmosets, and more—that were kept by our favorite artists. Subscribe to receive these weekly posts to your email inbox.
Sophie Calle is widely acclaimed as France’s leading conceptual artist. Described as “detective-like,” she often follows strangers, documenting their personal lives to create work that explores human vulnerability, identity, and intimacy. The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are just a few of the major museums to host exhibitions of her work. In 2007, she represented France at the Venice Biennale.
Sophie Calle was born in Paris in 1953 to an intellectual and creative household. Her father, Robert Calle, was a renowned art collector and former director of a contemporary art museum. Her mother, Monique Sindler, was a book critic and an attaché, later described by Calle as "the wildest mother, who was always center stage."1 The New Yorker described her parents as “an improbable pair,” who divorced when Sophie was three.
As a teenager, Sophie joined a Maoist group and briefly trained with Palestinian fedayeen in Lebanon (“for the struggle but also to impress a boyfriend”2). In her early twenties, she traveled around the world, to Mexico, New York, and even Bolinas, California, where she took her first photograph.3
She held her first public exhibition in Paris at 26 years old, and the show introduced the kind of artist-meets-detective work she’d do for the rest of her career. In 1979, she asked friends and strangers to each sleep for eight hours in her bed over the course of eight nights. She photographed and made notes about them: “whether they snored, what they dreamed about.”
In the years since that first show, Sophie Calle has asked gallery-goers to interpret a break-up email she received from a boyfriend, videotaped the final moments of her mother’s life, followed a stranger from Paris to his hotel room in Venice, and recorded phone conversations with people whose names were in an address book she found on the street.
So when Sophie Calle’s beloved cat Souris (French for “mouse”) passed away, it was only normal that she “exploit” such a private experience in the name of art.
After hosting a funeral service for Souris, Sophie Calle photographed the cat and laid him to rest in her garden in Paris, “his grave surrounded by daffodils.” She then asked her friend Laurie Anderson to make him a song (listen above). “Laurie knew him well,” Sophie Calle explained to the WSJ.
As Laurie Anderson went to work on her song, Sophie Called began to dream of creating an entire album. “From chance encounters and meetings with friends of friends,” the artist created a three-LP compilation with 39 songs from artists including Bono, The National, and Pharrell.4 She released the LP in a limited edition of 900 in Souris’ honor, and you can also listen to it on Spotify.
In 2018, she even created an exhibition for Perrotin Gallery in Paris that served to publicly mourn Souris. At the opening, some of Sophie’s friends performed their songs for Souris live at the gallery.
Reflecting on these efforts to celebrate and mourn her cat, the artist said: “When you say you’re sad about the cat, it’s a bit obscene for people….if I say my mother or my father is dead, everyone tells me, ‘Oh, poor thing, she lost her mother, oh, poor thing, she lost her father,’ but if we say that about our cat, we seem ridiculous.”
A note accompanying one of the photographs (below) of Souris that was on display at Perrotin provokes further examination of who and how we are allowed to mourn:
Dear Sophie. I recently heard about the deaths of your cat and your father, and I just wanted to let you know I was thinking about you. M.
Souris is the name that I will have repeated most often in my life. I still catch myself whispering it at night. His preferred territory was the space between my two pillows. There, in that void, that stillness where he used to breathe, I feel his absence most keenly. When your father dies, you don’t sleep with his ghost in your bed.
The artworks Sophie made about Souris Calle are emblematic of the themes in the rest of her oeuvre.
“People think they know my life because I talk about it all the time,” she once said. “But I’m not revealing anything. What I show is a moment, selected from amongst a thousand others. Pleasurable moments, I live,” she added: “Painful ones, I exploit.”
And in 2012 Sophie Calle stated that her own work “is always about absence: a man who goes, a break-up letter; someone that is followed that one doesn’t know, like a shadow; blind people who don’t see; my mother who died. Absence is a presence that runs through all my work.”
For a number of years, Sophie Calle didn’t want another cat. She wanted to stew, instead, in Souris’ absence. “He’s still here,” she told artnet News in 2018. But by 2022, there was a new cat in Sophie Calle’s life—“a black cat she calls Milou” according to The Guardian.
The artist who built a career on looking directly at loss and absence simply couldn’t resist the call to get a new cat.
Perhaps that’s because with cats, resistance is futile. As Abigail Tucker, the author of “The Lion in the Living Room,” explains about humans’ attraction to cats, “[humans] never domesticated cats. Cats domesticated themselves.” Unlike other animals like dogs and pigs that we forced into domestication, ancient cats chose proximity to human owners as a survival strategy. “We’re never going to get control over these animals,” Tucker asserts. We give our cats free food and shelter in exchange for the chance to live near them.
This feline scheme has been so effective, according to Tucker, because we have a biological weakness for cats. In the video below, Tucker explains that cats infect nearby animals with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. (In fact, one in three of us humans now has this parasite our systems.4) While it’s not totally understood how the parasite affects human behavior, there is speculation that one of the symptoms it may create in us is an attraction to cats. Toxoplasma gondii is, in essence, cat Love Potion Number 9.
What could be more Sophie Calle-esque than that?
In 2022, a reporter asked Sophie Calle what kind of ghost she would like to be. She paused, then remarked: “A cat that hears and understands everything…a ghost who can spy.”5
Perhaps the only thing that would make the great artist’s prowess as “a stalker provocateur” more formidable would be if she were reincarnated as a cat, emboldened by the animal’s undeniable cuteness, stealth movements, and Toxoplasma gondii love potion.
Sophie Calle plans to be buried in Bolinas, California—the sleepy surf town north of San Francisco where she first learned to take photographs in her early twenties. In fact, the first photographs the artist ever took were of tombstones in the Bolinas cemetery. She has reserved a plot for herself in that very same graveyard.
If one day years into the future you notice a cat slinking around the tombstones in Bolinas, jotting down notes in a cat-sized journal or stealing photos of visitors with a paw-sized camera, you’ll know exactly who it is.