In 1978 the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle set foot into a deserted train station and hotel, which would later become the home of the Musée d’Orsay, one of the most visited museums in the world. The young artist took up residency in the near empty building, hosting friends in room 501 and spending her time gathering documents, objects and records of former guests that she found left behind in the hotel, including notes addressed to a hotel employee called Oddo, whose identity she started fantasising about.
She kept many of these “trophies”, as she calls them, for 40 years, haunting her like ghosts from the past, hence the title of her new show at the Musée d’Orsay: The Ghosts of Orsay.
“I met Sophie at a dinner party. No sooner had she told me about her past experience than I took her to [the Musée d’Orsay’s] chief curator Sylvie Patry and former president Laurence des Cars”, says Donatien Grau, the head of contemporary programmes at the museum.
During France’s second lockdown, Calle was invited to wander the Musée d’Orsay’s empty corridors once more, where she stumbled upon Schneelandschaft (snow landscape, 1904), a monumental painting by the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet (1868-1961) featuring a seemingly lonely skier. Actually two of his companions that were painted over can be seen on the back of the canvas, au dos in French, which is pronounced “oddo”, just like the mysterious employee Calle had earlier taken an interest in. That is when the whole project came full circle in the artist’s mind.
“The Ghosts of Orsay is a total artwork mixing photography, poetry, readymades,” Grau says. “It reveals Calle’s unique ability to weave narratives.” Calle’s display will be divided into two parts, one devoted to the hotel of the past and the other to today’s museum. The above-mentioned trophies will be presented as readymades, which Calle asked anthropologist Jean-Paul Demoule to write captions for, as though they were discovered during some future excavation. The second section of the show will include pictures of, and by, Calle, who had the museum and its collection all to herself during the lockdown, haunting its hallowed corridors once more.
• The Ghosts of Orsay, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 15 March-12 June