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Sophie Calle

What Do You See?, part of Sophie Calle’s exhibit at The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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Sophie Calle: Last Seen

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Through March 3, 2014

Red, the color of passion and emotional charge. That is what you see upon entrance into Sophie Calle’s Last Seen exhibit. Perhaps you may walk in expecting to see sumptuous pieces of art, rich in detail, with figures draped in the finest garments indulging in foods or acts that stimulate to the highest senses. Instead you see … nothing.

Calle’s body of work explores absence and memory. What can we remember when there is nothing there? Is art still the same if the strokes of the paintbrush or the pixilation of the photograph are not physically tangible?

To give some background, this exhibit is the brainchild of the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Museum art heist of 1990. Thought by many to be one of the greatest art heists in the history of the United States, it resulted in the theft of thirteen original pieces of work estimated at half a billion dollars. The works included five drawings by Degas, and six paintings by Rembrandt, Flinck, Manet, and Vermeer. While FBI agents have stated that they are sure who the thieves are, to this day the works have yet to be rediscovered. There is a $5 million dollar reward for information that will lead to their tracking.

Following the heist, Calle came to the museum to ask staff to describe the artworks from memory. Each response was written and paired with a photograph of the different empty space where the stolen work was once placed. Both components were framed to form a new piece of art, and Calle repeated this process for each of the missing pieces.

The Last Seen collection was first shown at the Carnegie International and toured other museums around the world, but it hasn’t been shown at the Gardner museum or anywhere else in Boston until now. When the Gardner museum invited Calle in early 2013 to revisit her project, she not only agreed, but also added a new collection, What Do You See? to the exhibit. This latter collection adds a fresh layer to the already thought-provoking imaginations of the former collection. In What Do You See?, Calle once again recruits people to ask for their thoughts, yet this time the people are looking at the framed empty space rather than the empty space itself. They were not told about the missing pieces of art that once hung on the empty space and that had led to the framed piece. The test was whether these people would pick up on the fact that something was missing or if they would focus on the blank framed canvas. No two responses were the same, but in order to find out what they said, you’ll have to see the pieces for yourself.

Dear reader, when you go to see these collections, would you care to answer what you see?