Soph-istry (research point)

This posting considers works by two Sophies, or one Sophie (Calle) and one Sophy (Rickett). Although the context of the research point is the relationship between image and text, both works are multimedia installations including other material and other forms of expression.

The moral of ‘Take Care of Yourself’ by Sophie Calle (Chrisafis 2007, Fisher 2009) is that, if you are in a relationship with a conceptual artist, don’t end it with dumping her by email. The title comes from he final sentence of X’s email and the exhibition as a whole represents the infernal ire of the proverbial woman scorned.

Calle showed the letter to 107 women (or 106 women and a parrot), asked each to respond to it according to her own profession and recorded, filmed or displayed the results. The parrot ate it, a sharpshooter shot out the word ‘love’ in the three places it appeared, an actor and a clown gave their own readings, a graphic artist turned it into origami, a copy editor deconstructed the grammar and spelling , and so forth… The exhibition is a mix of photos and text, together with video screens and physical objects (such as the sharpshooters target, with the holes illuminated by LEDs).

One reviewer (Fisher 2009) tells us: ‘Wittgenstein once proposed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If that is the case, then Calle’s work translates the broader feminine experience into a formalized world of possibilities. The “answers” are less important than the forms of engagement and investigation, the invitation to construct meaning.’

Sophy Rickett’s ‘Objects in the Field’, by contrast, tackles a seemingly more objective subject – her time as Artist Associate to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. In particular, there is interaction between Rickett and Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer and designer of one of the telescopes in use at the Institute.

The exhibition was a mix of photographs and text, displayed in an environment including historic and ancient astronomical equipment which provides a context. The text, reproduced in full by Johnston (2014) drifts in and out of relevance to the images. The early part deals with Rickett’s childhood experience with optical equipment having her eyes tested and being fitted with glasses; the central part tells of her encounters with Dr Willstrop; the final section is distinctly tangential, describing something seen from a train window.

The images include a set called ‘Observations’, which are prints from a set of negatives produced in Dr Willstrop’s telescope. From an interview with Sharon Boothroyd (2013) Rickett I get the impression that there was a mutual regard and also a mutual im=ncomprehension between the two, “So the work came to be about a kind of symbiosis on the one hand, but on the other there is a real tension, a sense of us resisting one another.  The material in the middle stays the same, but it’s kind of contested, fought over.”  Willstrop saw the photographs as scientific research (albeit out of date) and Rickett saw them as art objects (although checking with Willstrop to ensure that she did not misrepresent them)

The reviews that I found are surprisingly similar, even to sharing the same imprecision about the title. To quote Franchi (2014), although others use almost identical wording, ‘The name of “Objects in the Field” comes from the lexicon used by astronomers and astrophysicists that refers to stars as ‘objects’ and to the sky as ‘the field’.’ Rather than plagiarising each other, I suspect they were all quoting from a press release. In an astronomical context ‘objects’ are not only stars, but also planets, nebulae and comets (all of which feature in the ‘Observations’ series) and ‘the field’ is the field of view of the telescope.

We are asked to comment on how these two bodies of work reflect post modern approaches to narrative. This, of course, means first attempting to understand what is meant by a ‘postmodern approach’. I am assisted by Andy Grundberg’s essay ‘The Crisis of the Real’ as summarised by Ashley la Grange (la Grange 2005). Grundberg notes that ‘post-modernism’ means different things in different artistic media, having originated in architecture.

‘Post-modern’ is an odd term to understand because ‘Modern’ describing a particular period in various arts including photography (roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century) means something different from ‘modern’ in everyday speech (meaning ‘up to date’ or ‘state-of-the-art’). when modern modes fell out of vogue, it was necessary to invent a term meaning ‘more modern than modern’, hence ‘post-modern’.

Post-modernism, according to Grundberg is a reaction against the certainties implied by Modernism in the various arts (my analogy is the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as presented by Judith Hahn, compared with the Raymond Baxter era – but perhaps I am showing my age). Critics argued that post-modernism must debunk or ‘deconstruct’ the myths of the autonomous individual and the individual subject, but they disagree on how to do it. Approaches include mixed media or a feeling that the media do not matter so long as the work is defined in cultural terms (Grundberg, in la Grange 2005, 151).

My impression is that, while post-modernism has manifold forms, the common approach appears to be to look for underlying assumptions or certainties, then to challenge or subvert them. This seems to be what both Calle and Rickett are doing in their own way. Both exhibitions used text (and other media) in a relay relationship with the images, rather than the anchorage that was the norm in earlier times. Both are self-indulgent to some extent (Calle more than Rickett). Both appear to demand that the viewer does some work to extract [his/her own version of] the full meaning.


Boothroyd, S. (2013). Sophy Rickett. [online] photoparley. Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Chrisafis, A. (2007). Interview: Sophie Calle. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Fisher, C. (2009). Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Franchi, D. (2014). Exhibition Object in the Field by Sophy Rickett at the Grimaldi Gallery, London.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Johnston, S. (2014). Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field. [online] Inside MHS Oxford. Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

la Grange, A. (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Focal Press.

The Photographers’ Gallery. (2014). Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].


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