The French artist Sophie Calle, whose work often involves journeys into the private worlds of others – even of complete strangers – has now voyaged into an even more inaccessible realm: that of the literally and metaphorically blind. Calle’s two-part, multimedia exhibit entitled Son Kez, İlk Kez (Last Time, First Time) is on display at Istanbul’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum until the end of the year. The photographs comprising the first part of the exhibit, Son İmge (The Last Image), portray residents of Istanbul who lost their sight in childhood or adulthood, together with photos of the last thing they remember seeing. The second part of the exhibit, Denizi Görmek (To See the Sea) records on video the first glimpse of the sea by Istanbulites who – unbelievable as it may seem – have lived here for years or even decades without a trip to the shore.
As explained by a panel at the entrance to the exhibit, Calle’s project was inspired by the ancient myth according to which the settlement of Chalcedon (now Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul) was dubbed the “city of the blind,” due to its colonists’ failure to choose the more preferable site of Byzantium just across the Bosphorus.
The Last Image
The exhibit’s first section – expanded from a smaller, earlier project of Calle’s – contains photos of 13 people, employing a slightly different approach for each. Calle sometimes photographs the actual objects that comprise her interviewees’ “last image,” such as one man’s living room couch, or the Haydarpaşa train station with its famous clock. In other cases, Calle’s photos recreate memories that would otherwise be impossible to record: a text describing the last hours of one woman's failing vision is accompanied by a blurred photo of a red bus on a city street.
One photo features a young boy who has been blind from birth. (Calle has stated that she was initially reluctant to include him in the exhibit.) Rather than describing his last memory, pre-blindness, the boy tells of a dream he has had of driving on a long, straight road, in a “black car,” wearing “black sunglasses.” We are completely at a loss how to interpret his words. Are these visions real, or are they meaningless clichés obtained at second or even third hand?
Some of Calle’s subjects even act out the scenes they are narrating. A young shepherd, blinded in a hunting accident, demonstrates for the camera how he covered his eyes with his hands after being shot. A former taxi driver, shot in the eyes during a fight, tells his story with such an abundance of hand gestures that it is obvious – even from this small sample of photos – that he has lost none of his physical vivacity.
We too suffer from a kind of visual handicap, being unable to see into the eyes – and thus the psyches – of Calle’s blind subjects. We learn that the elderly woman mentioned above (whose last image was of a blurred red bus) lost the sight in her one healthy eye through a doctor’s error during a routine medical procedure. Calle photographs this woman with her right eye closed, and her left eye, with its prominent white, wide open. Her expression (reproach? resignation? tranquillity?) is as impossible for us to read as ours would be for her.
To See the Sea
The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in an essay from An Anthropologist on Mars entitled “To See or not to See,” describes the experiences of the formerly blind who have recovered their sight post-surgery. One might assume that a blind person regaining a lost or never-acquired power of sight would be overjoyed at this change. According to Sacks, it is not so simple: many of his patients end up confused and disoriented, as lives lived around the senses of hearing, touch, and smell must accommodate a new and completely unfamiliar method of perception.
So it is, tragically, with many of Calle’s subjects in the second part of her exhibit. The first video in "To See the Sea" is of a thin, middle-aged man wearing a blazer, standing on the beach with his back to us. After several minutes, he finally turns around, his eyes still full of anger and suspicion – as though even the sea itself were a trick being played on him. A young man on crutches seems too bowed down with grief even to register the natural wonder lying before him for the first time. Another man, thick-set, wearing a denim jacket, has tears in his eyes after turning to face the camera; the elderly hacı with beard and skullcap in the next video can barely hold back his own tears.
The ten people in these videos, shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, are all immigrants from Central and Eastern Turkey. By definition (given the criterion for their inclusion in the exhibit) all are living on the social and economic margins of Istanbul. Nonetheless, there is nothing pitying or condescending in Calle’s portrayal of her subjects, whose dignity remains intact before the camera. A young girl in one video idly fiddles in the water with her foot, seemingly indifferent to the camera’s presence, with the inscrutable expression of children. A middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf breaks into a wide grin after she turns around. The exhibit closes on a note of possible optimism, as a girl wearing a red sweater turns around, just the tiniest hint of a smile breaking through her shy expression.
Son Kez, İlk Kez is a wonderful discovery, as is the Sabancı Museum itself, located above the second Bosphorus bridge in the neighborhood of Emirgan. Those living in Istanbul, or planning to travel here before the year is up, should find time to visit the museum and see this thought-provoking exhibit.