“Sophie Calle is the shadow that falls on life,” once wrote the critic Patrick Frey. In the spring of 1990, her shadow fell on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, still swarming with FBI agents, as the gilded troche of 19th century opulence became the site of one of most well known art heists of the century. In the wake of the robbery came Calle, whose own petty thefts tended towards the more quotidian: coffee cups, address books, the imaginations of the blind. Gone from the Gardner were a Vermeer, two Rembrandts, a Flinck, a Manet, five gouaches by Degas, a Chinese vase, and a bronze Napoleonic eagle.

The work made in response to the theft, Last Seen, is now on display at the Gardner for the first time with the opening of its new contemporary wing. It is accompanied by a new series, What Do You See? which functions as an epilogue of sorts. In Last Seen, we are confronted with the gaping void: photographs of the negative space created by the stolen artwork, in which the viewer’s own face is lightly reflected. Alongside are texts articulating the accumulated thoughts, memories, and emotions of museum curators, guards, and staff members in the aftermath of loss.

The second installment is a kind of doubling back, a hallway of infinite mirrors; this time, we are looking at others looking at the empty frames, their backs turned to us. The words of visitors are now also incorporated into this polyphony of anonymous voices, the texts like outsized museum labels. Like the dead, the paintings have been overtaken by the memories and interpretations of the living. In their physical absence, they are now no more than a collection of stories told by others, and they cannot speak back. “What you see is yourself,” one of the lines reads.

Much has been written about Calle’s ongoing investigations into absence, memory and theft, all the ways in which we both steal and are stolen from – with time being the greatest thief of all. Hers is an elaborate attempt to revive what’s been lost through the dispassionate display of photographs, objects, and text, in detail so exacting it verges on the ecstatic.

But as much as Calle is seemingly preoccupied with the scientific task of documentation, she at the same time resists these totalizing and objective depictions. It is in the indeterminate space between image, object, and text that Calle lives, in the half-light of meaning. In her work, she infects the factual with a sense of the strange. She trespasses into the shadow world of unseen forces, locating the hidden animism of the everyday. Like a shaman or seer, she resurrects the spirits of these missing paintings, the phrase “I see” recurring throughout the texts like a fortune-teller’s incantatory refrain.

The exhibit turns on one curious diptych of image and text. While the others are deliberately authorless, this narrative recounts what the French clairvoyant Maude Kristen had to say about the disappearance of the artwork. The subjects of the paintings are now ghosts, according to Kristen, spiritual beings set free from their representations. “What I see in this opening is alive and joyful,” the writing reads. And above this caption is a self-portrait, taken in the museum’s nocturnal hours: a photograph of Calle’s framed shadow, another fugitive double, both there and not there.

As the scholar Philip Fisher once said, writing of the armless torso of the Venus de Milo, “It is one of the powers of art to declare new wholes.” In other words, we are always telling stories about what is no longer there, and through these stories make sense of the absence; it is an act of creative destruction. What Calle shows us is that the empty space carved out by loss is also the terroir of dreams. It is the vacuum from which new narratives emerge, the fundament of art and the imagination.

Originally appeared in Art New England