Meeting the Sea

Sophie Calle’s film brings some serenity to Times Square

By Annette Lin

Voir la Mer, a three-minute film by the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, being shown at Times Square during the month of October as part of this year’s Crossing the Line Festival, offers an unusually meditative way to engage a place best known for cacophonous commercialization. Each night, starting from 11:57pm, the film replaces the bright, blinking advertisements of seven electronic billboards with introversive art.

Sophie Calle’s “Voir la Mer” at Times Square. / photo: Alisa Solomon

Shot on the edge of the Black Sea in Turkey, it follows five subjects from Istanbul — a city where most residents are never more than 15 minutes away from the ocean — as they see the sea for the first time. Each looks at the water and then turns to the camera, which, fixed at a close range, shows the back of their heads, and then their faces. Their reactions are not wild; there is no shouting, gasping or even talking. Rather, their gazes are steady but not still, like the ocean behind them.

The result is a surprisingly intimate respite from one of the world’s most intense public spaces. The length of a pop song — bite-sized and designed for short attention spans — the film still draws you in and invites you to forget Times Square for a moment. It evokes the same ambient peacefulness one might get from looking at, say, a Mark Rothko or an Agnes Martin painting, and like these artists’ abstract works, produces contemplation and surprising emotion for an idea that seems simple on the surface. The gaze of a man with a beard tinged snowy white and a traditional taqiyah cap on his head, is particularly affecting: at first his face betrays little reaction, but then it becomes apparent that his emotions are too strong, and he doesn’t know how to show them. His eyes naturally tilt downwards at the corner, giving him an air of permanent melancholy, and he has a lazy eye. These fleshy imperfections — hardly noticeable in the power of his gaze, yet still registering at the back of the viewer’s mind — help build the film’s inquiry into what it means to be human. The film shows similar reactions from two women wearing painted silk hijabs, a girl who squints to protect her eyes from the daylight, and a younger but balding man: you can detect their emotion in the twitch of a shoulder, the widening of the eyes, the roll of a tear.

Calle has an interest in acts that appear to be basic and ordinary, but that she makes unfamiliar and strangely revelatory. For one of her earlier works, Suite Venitienne, she followed a man on his move from Paris to Venice, and shot images of his daily life on black and white film, resulting in a series of unassuming vignettes — man walking in the street, man having dinner at a bar. For another work, she poignantly filmed the last moments of her mother’s life. Like Voir la Mer, these works do not focus on the spectacular. Rather, Calle seems intent on drawing out and revealing to the viewer the profundity in the everyday.

Voir la Mer is being presented by Times Square Arts as part of its ongoing Midnight Moment project, which presents a conceptual three-minute film that changes every month. Other works that have screened so far this year include a surrealist piece by the artist Alex Da Corte with a vivid, acid-blue background; a blown-up portrait of the artist Pipilotti Rist flattening herself against a screen; and dramatically zoomed-in shots of the world as it looks on Google Maps by art director Benjamin Lebovitz. While each of these three films, flashes and amazes in its own version of billboard flare, Voir la Mer dazzles in the most unexpected way: with quiet contemplation.