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“Staging one’s life”: autofictions by women artists
30.03.2019 | Cassandre Langlois

“All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood”, Louise Bourgeois once said (Louise Bourgeois. Album, New York, Peter Blum, 1994). When the works of an artist come to grips with childhood trauma, they become repositories of a “true” and “fantasised” life.

Throughout the 1970s, a new genre combining fiction and autobiography began to come into use. It was called autofiction, a word coined by the writer Serge Doubrovsky in 1977. In literature, autofiction enables the author, who is also both the narrator and the main character, to recount his or her life in a novelised form. In the field of visual arts, several artists have used this process in which they become both players and creators in a narration that combines fiction and reality, while also maintaining an ambiguity as to the truthfulness of the facts depicted.

This is the case for Sophie Calle, who began to create factual narration and to take an interest in the notion of intimacy as early as 1978 by openly staging elements from her own life in writing and photography. For No Sex Last Night (1992), she asked her partner Greg Shephard to film their relationship. In doing so, the artist constructed her own “individual mythology”, an expression used by Harald Szeemann to describe one of the sections of documenta 5 Kassel in 1972. The 1970s would come to be known for the large number of works in which artists explored their personal lives; Annette Messager, for instance, used the first person form in the titles of her “album-collections” – Mes clichés témoins [Control Snapshots, 1971-1973], Mes jalousies [My Jealousies, 1972] – and pieces from the 1980s – Mes trophées [My Trophies, 1987], Mes petites effigies [My Little Effigies, 1988], and Mes vœux [My Vows, 1989].

In their process of documenting the artist’s life, Florence Paradeis’ photographs are populated by members of her circle of family and friends staged in fake tableaux of their everyday activities. As for Florence Chevallier, her existentialist soul-searching leads her to stage her own body, revealing its most secret facets.

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