Sophie Calle is a conceptual artist that takes as a starting point for her practice her own intimacy. Each of her actions is potentially a work of art, and this is no surprise that when conceiving a book, she conceives it as an experience in itself.

“Exquisite Pain”, published in 2003, tells us the premises, climax and aftermath of a separation. A perfect oxymoron, the title announces both suffering and sensuality, anguish and pleasure. In 1984, Sophie Calle was awarded a three months residency in Japan. She was then in a wobbly relationship. Three months seemed a long period of time to be away from her lover. To make it shorter, she decides to go to Japan by train, via Moscou and the Trans-Siberian. Her lover would join her there, 92 days later.

From the beginning, we know that on the 92nd day, something happened, as all images are crossed with a mundane stamp stating the number of days left to the fated happening.

Over the pages, one spread and one photograph a day; the artist’s ordinary imagery displays small episodes of her journey. Each picture is accompanied by a short written comment, often operating flashback in the artist’ story. Next to a portrait of young Sophie Calle, she recalls an argument she had with artist and writer Hervé Guilbert. She also writes to her lover, giving some clues on their relationship. Here and there, the text disappears, leaving us with a blend photograph, as to make space for the boredom or emptiness the artist experienced. As if her being had dissolved in her surroundings, her writing goes silent. Anxiety rises, as we get closer to the end of the countdown. Comments become passionate and fearful. On the Day D, the stamp disappears and the image is the one of a 70’s red phone, in a hotel room, the object by which she learnt her relationship was over.

In the second part of the book, the photograph of the phone reoccurs on every single spread. Below, Sophie Calle tells and repeats the pain caused by this phone call. On the opposite page, a stranger explains the time when they suffered the most in their life. Over the pages, and therefore the days, Sophie Calle’s tale of her suffering become shorter and the printed words fade; as if others’ words were healing her own misery.

Through the repetition, the red phone appears as an image impressed in the psyche, that will eternally be associated with this particular pain, a visual memory that keeps sharp the sense of the affliction, re-enacting the traumatic event ceaselessly. The accompanying text that goes disappearing over the pages is the interpretation that language elaborates to deal with the grief, rewriting the story days after days.  

There is something almost Freudian in the way Exquisite Pain articulates photographs and texts. Sophie Calle uses images as an emanation of raw feelings connected to the subconscious, while the writing translates them into a discourse in order to make them more acceptable.