Sophie Calle is the mordant French conceptualist whose verbose, irritating, and haunting show Absence at Paula Cooper is the gallery prequel to her non-commercial film “Couldn’t Catch Death,” first shown in 2007 at the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and slated to screen at Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan in May 2014. Absence examines the circumstances under which her mother, née Rachel Monique Sindler, died from breast cancer in 2006, right up to her last utterance: “souci.” It also includes Calle’s private North Pole trip to bury some of her mother’s effects beneath a glacier; a diamond, Chanel necklace, and photograph.
Calle creates narrative fictions about tremendous loss, using stories to “protect” her from bitterness. Her life is her art and her art is her life, which makes her pieces either irrepressibly cloying or profoundly moving. She blurs public and private so thoroughly you feel like a voyeur who can’t stop rubbernecking some particularly gruesome splattered roadkill. Referring to her mother as an “exhibitionist,” she ups the ante by cunningly appropriating the most profound moment of said mother’s life — her death — and literally slathers it all over the exhibit’s walls. It’s a text and photo based collection of deeply affecting moments that requires the viewer to suck it up on Calle’s terms. Read the text, contemplate the meaning or dismiss the entire opus, Absence is not a drive-by event. You have to give it your time, but in the end, despite the scented whiff of self-obsession you will exit profoundly moved.
The show includes incisive and linguistically twisted marble floor panels describing ‘natural’ causes of death, like “Arachnoiditis of Posterior Fossa.” Installation stories like “Silence” are meant to deliver a cloistered TKO: “Every time my mother passed by the Bristol Hotel she stopped, crossed herself, and told us to shut up.” “Silence,” she said, “This is where I lost my virginity.” How many of us need mothers like that?
Part of the process for her maternal memento mori included hiring Maude Kirsten, a clairvoyant, who arranged locations for her to go to “meet” her fate, including a trip to the famed healing spot in France, Lourdes. Calle found that the Catholic Church had recognized sixty seven miraculous cures that happened at Lourdes, but not one included her mothers nemesis, breast cancer. She is neither for or against the existence or non-existence of miracles, but sees their technicolor theatrics as one more subject to seize upon in her relentless self-documentation.
Special signs appear seemingly everywhere on her cryptic journey spouting words like “confession,” “misfortune” or “saviour.” But die her mother must, as the word “souci” escapes from her lips in a last gasp, telling her daughter, “ne vous faites pas de souci.” Don’t you worry.
Lost in grief after the gruelling filming of the entire process, she purchases a stuffed giraffe, names it Monique after her mother, and mounts it on her studio wall. Or as she pithily puts it: “Pleasurable moments, I live … Painful ones, I exploit.”
Sophie Calle continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until November 16.