Rachel, Monique, Sophie Calle’s memorial to her mother, is installed in a side chapel of the starkly beautiful neo-Gothic Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 90th Street. On a marble plaque beside the chapel entrance, the artist has overlaid a brief text noting that her mother was not a Christian, but she would never pass up an invitation to the Upper East Side.
The plaque also describes the genesis of the piece, which is dominated by a large video projection of Calle’s mother, who died in 2006 (and who, as the text explains, “was called successively Rachel, Monique, Szyndler, Calle, Pagliero, Gonthier, Sindler”) lying motionless in bed with a floral bouquet in the foreground, on her left, and a small stuffed cow on her right:
Her life did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed where she was dying – I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid that she would pass away in my absence – she exclaimed: “Finally!”
The quarrelsome, narcissistic tenor of their exchange is scant preparation for Calle’s serene, whimsical and moving installation, in which a disquieting mixture of love and detachment begins to feel like an embodiment of every fraught relationship, despite the pronounced peculiarities of Calle’s connection to her self-involved mother.
Or, as the former would have no doubt put it, Monique’s connection to her self-involved daughter. In an entry dated July 29, 1986, from her diaries, which are excerpted in a lushly designed book available for perusing at the chapel (as well as read in English in an audio recording by the actress Kim Cattrall), Calle’s mother writes:
Talked to Sophie on the phone. We’re going through a distant phase, at least as far as I’m concerned. She irritates me, because I’m never a priority for her. She would put anyone ahead of me.
Questions about the appropriateness of making such personal writings public remain unresolved by the artist. In a brief introduction to the book, whose title restates the many names Monique used, followed by “Ma mère aimait qu’on parle d’elle” (“My mother liked to be the object of discussion,” according to the provided translation), Calle writes:
A few days before she lost consciousness, my mother asked me to take a box full of her photo albums and personal diaries home with me. […]
She had chosen not to destroy them. She wasn’t naïve about what might happen to them if she left them in my hands. Otherwise I wouldn’t have allowed myself.
And so for Calle, permission to publicize her mother’s diaries and photos lay in the lack of instructions to do otherwise. Her admission that Monique “wasn’t naïve about what might happen to them if she left them in my hands” is both a transparent presumption about her mother’s intentions and an acknowledgment of Monique’s awareness of her own potential recklessness. Whether Monique admired Calle’s aesthetic (which has involved rummaging through the belongings of hotel guests and sending her boyfriend’s breakup message to 107 women for analysis and interpretation) as compulsive truth-telling or feared it as irresponsible invasiveness (although there’s no reason why this has to be an either/or situation), she seems to have been realistic enough to accept her impending loss of control, voluntarily surrendering her privacy to her daughter’s discretion.
In fact, Calle chose to publish mostly snippets of poetic musings about aging and death, and she redacts names that might prove harmful to the parties involved. The diaries, in this form, become an exercise in circularity, with Monique recording her experience of her own mother’s illness and death beneath the video made by her daughter of her own last moments.
Materials from this exhibition were featured in the artist’s Chelsea exhibition, Absence, at Paula Cooper last October. The gallery issued a press release on behalf of Rachel, Monique, referring to it as a sequel to the previous show, but the installation struck me not so much as a follow-up but as a distillation of its themes and imagery — more elegant and focused, but also deeper and richer.
Lace curtains embroidered with the word “souci” (“worry” from Monique’s last words, “Ne vous faites pas de souci” — “Don’t worry”) were draped across the entranceway to the room housing the Chelsea show, leaving little impact once they were traversed, but here they are suspended from an upper choir with a stained glass window shining through them, to stunning effect. The same word is spelled out in artificial butterflies in an upwardly-thrusting diagonal on the gold fleurs-de-lis painted across the south wall; it is also lit up in a white frame propped in front of the chapel’s altar.
Grainy, black-framed black-and-white photographs of 19th-century funerary sculpture are installed sparingly and sensitively in various parts of the chapel, including three mounted on kneelers, which creates a mini-shrine within the space. In the shadows of the north wall, a tall, vertical triptych depicts Monique’s tombstone, which is engraved with the month and day (but not the year) of her birth and the year (not the month or day) of her death. Monique was vain about her age. The bottom image contains her requested epitaph, “Je m’ennuie deja” (“I’m bored already”) along with a framed photo from her youth, wearing a stylish hat and making a clownish, coquettish face.
Most moving of all is a large, long, narrow photograph offering a straight-on view into Monique’s open coffin, which is set across two benches facing each other to form a trough. A Christian Lacroix scarf covers her nose and mouth like a surgical mask, and she’s wearing a polka-dot dress. A variety of objects litter the rest of the coffin, which are inventoried in a black-framed text sitting on the sill of an adjacent window. The dimensions of the text appear to match those of the photograph, in effect turning it into the coffin lid.
Among the items Monique wanted laid on her body were sour candies (“because she gorged on them”); stuffed cows (“because she collected cows”); recordings of Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano (“because, in the end, Mozart was all she listened to”); Marlboros (“because she smoked a lot”); and vodka, rum and whiskey (“because she loved to drink”).
Also included are photos of friends, family and lovers (“because she loved them”) and of herself (“in which she felt she looked young and beautiful”); a MoMA membership card (“because of New York”); a book on Spinoza and Spinozism (“because she began studying the subject a month before she died”) and volume one of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)(“because she knew the first page by heart and recited it whenever she got the chance”), all of which make her sound like a self-parodying café society grand dame straight out of an Eric Rohmer movie.
Despite her highflown interests, Monique’s life was marked by a singular lack of achievement, at least in her own eyes. Paper, a pencil and an eraser are left in her coffin “because she dreamed of writing,” which is the saddest sentiment in the show. In her diaries she exclaims, “WRITING! I really believe that I will die with that project UN-accomplished. I realize the extent to which my mind wanders in all directions. […] But I am INCURABLY lazy.”
Elsewhere, on August 15, 1986, all she writes is “I was afraid. I was afraid. I was afraid.”
The video projection of Monique’s face in profile, the audio loop of Cattrall reading from the diaries and the periodic upwelling of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622 (the last music Monique wanted to hear), fused with the architecture and light of the chapel, create a poignancy that seeps into your pores. The golden fleurs-de-lis reflect the projector’s light, conjuring an ethereal, abstract pattern across the image of a dying woman. Perhaps too much can be made of their flickering transience in terms of Calle’s personal search for lost time, but perhaps not.
At one point, the hands of caregivers reach out for signs of breath or pulse. Apropos of an artwork fully freighted with ambiguity, from the intentions and affections of its two principle players to the moral foundation of its choices, we never know for sure if they find any.
Sophie Calle: Rachel Monique continues at the Chapel of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest (Fifth Avenue and E 90th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 25.