In my early days as a theater student, when my teacher was tired of our careful, over-polished, actorish acting, he’d exhort us to show our “bathroom selves.” Your bathroom self is who you are before you apply your mask for the day–or after you’ve sweat or cried or fucked it off. It’s the face you must reckon with in the mirror without the prettifying effects you’ve cultivated to best mimic the person you want to be when people are watching. It’s your butt-scratching, nose picking, pimple-prodding, resting bitchface self. It’s the one who winces with shame but doesn’t try to change the subject as you recount every petty, mean-spirited, vindictive, clumsy, desperate, venal, humiliating, self-destructive thing you’ve ever done or said, and acknowledges for a moment that that is an undeniable truth about you, underneath your vaingloriously devised veneer of makeup and manners. Only the bathroom witnesses it, your shitmost self.
Sophie Calle has spent nearly thirty years investigating another sort of “bathroom self,” a cousin to the one my acting teacher sought, one that emerges in the presence of, or absence of, money. For Fraenkel Gallery’s show featuring four bodies of Calle’s work, the press release states that the works explore the themes of “love, violence, secrets, and death,” but for me money was the silent partner even when it wasn’t the principle actor. The first gallery offered a grid of the most straightforward depictions of this self. “Cash Machine” comprises images lifted from ATM surveillance footage. What do you imagine you look like when you think no one can see you checking your bank balance? Judging by this sequence of candid images, you are a sad clown: worry, suspicion, bewilderment, guilt, disappointment, and gobsmacked shock manifest in the faces of the customers of various ATMs in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. One can only guess, but it seems from their toilette and clothing, that these people are working class, and that one is having a chuckle at the expense of the poor reckoning with their poverty.
In the second room was a sandblasted glass triptych.
“They say the police can distinguish between people who drown themselves for love and those who drown themselves for money. Lovers change their minds, their fingers scraped from clinging to the piers. Debtors sink to the bottom like a slab of concrete.”
These words float over images of dark, deep, agitated water, which is disconcertingly depicted sideways, its ripples and swells aligning vertically. Notable is that Calle fixated upon this counterintuitive factoid: money so enslaves us that the despair from our mishandling of it annihilates our hope more completely even than romantic heartbreak.
Directly across from the triptych was an odd, unassuming installation of two safes embedded in the wall. But there was a plaque between them with the text:
“Find a couple.
Have each of them tell me a secret.
Install two safes in their home.
Lock each of them up in its own safe.
Keep the codes to myself.
The lovers will have to live with the other’s secret
close at hand but out of reach.”
Realization of “Secrets”’s portent rises in the gut like nausea: Some presumably happy couple, one that shares interests and makes major financial decisions together (like investing in art), will not only tell an outsider to their marriage things they have kept from each other, but will then have, in their home, for as long as they live or can stand it, two heavy, gleaming symbols of their mutual alienation – however wide or narrow that alienation may be. Each could have suspected or even assumed the other kept something of themselves private for the sake of mystery, or just hadn’t disclosed everything because it’s impossible to fully “know” another human being – We are large, we contain multitudes, after all – But “Secrets” removes all doubt: each person does in fact deliberately keep a secret from the other, a secret neither intends ever to reveal, and they have even paid major art world prices to have these secrets conspicuously concealed in twin vaults that will remind them every day of the chosen truths they refuse to share with each other. And their guests can ask them all about it at every dinner party they throw for the rest of their lives. Vive l’amour!
The provocation of “Secrets” is explicit; the impulse to expose oneself and one’s closest relationship to that provocation, mystifying and ballsy. But juxtaposed as the “Secrets” installation was with “Collateral Damage, Targets” in the final gallery, a correlation emerged despite the seemingly disparate themes. “Collateral Damage” comprises 13 color images of petty offenders whose mugshots police enlarged and used in target practice. The pigment prints are splattered with bullet holes and the subjects’ eyes are obscured with bars of frosted glass (Calle’s, not the police’s, alteration).The punctured images are sad and shaming. Little would be less encouraging, less life-affirming, to someone in what one can assume are circumstances of disadvantage and dim hope than to know that his banal, desperate acts earned him the rank of something law enforcement uses to practice more efficient killing. Judging from the mustaches and hairstyles, the actual mugshots seem to be from the late seventies through the eighties, the timeframe of the project was between 1990 and 2003, and all the subjects are white. Nevertheless it was hard not to regard the prints, neatly aligned on the wall (like a lineup, in fact) without their bringing to mind the recent surge in coverage of police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and the revelations of the the casual disregard for human life seemingly endemic to our law enforcement.
While the affluent can toy with notions of privacy, tinkering with their boundaries, revealing and concealing their secrets on their own terms (or that of an artist they paid), the privacy of the poor is cheap and violable with impunity. Poverty and the bad decisions one makes at its behest are sometimes treated as a renunciation of one’s agency: try to sell an ounce of weed to a UC and you no longer “own” your own face. Calle’s exploration of themes surrounding money over the past three decades did not yield anything she considers conclusive. She professes her failure in both a written chronology and a charming short film played in the last gallery. Regardless of the artist’s dissatisfaction, the film offers extempore insights that informed this exhibit’s assembled branches of her work. In it, Calle sidles up to strangers at ATMs – parlez-moi d’argent…. The poorer-looking ones seem surprised and perplexed, like they’d been cornered – their faces reveal so much – but they engage in some café philosophizing.The richer-looking ones decline to speak, and walk away.