Art Inspection

Sophie Calle’s Bedside Manner

In "Rachel, Monique", a new show at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest, Sophie Calle presents a video of her mother’s final moments. Is this the logical next step in a culture of oversharing? Or a moving portrait of mortality?

For the past three decades, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, 61, has explored the boundaries between privacy, intimacy, surveillance, and voyeurism. Notable highlights of her career include: The Hotel (1980), where she worked as a chamber maid and documented the items in all of the rooms she cleaned. In 1983, she found an address book on the street and contacted everyone in it to assemble a multimedia portrait of its owner, which she published in the French paper, Libération. (The owner of the address book was none too pleased and responded by running a nude photo of Calle in the same paper.)

In Take Care of Yourself (2007), she invited a cross-section of 107 women to comment on a breakup email she had received that year, examining its every possible interpretation. Also that year, she presented Couldn’t Capture Death, an 11-minute video of her mother’s passing. This video, accompanied by several other photographic works, texts, and a sound track composed of selected excerpts from her mother’s diaries, will be on view May 9 - June 25 at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest.

Sophie Calle “Rachel, Monique” (2014)

It seems the world is just now starting to reflect seriously on the idea of privacy, a subject Calle has been fascinated by for over thirty years. Her often extreme focus on the deeply personal looks positively prescient in today’s world of social sharing and surveillance. From NSA data-mining to Google’s ad-word algorithms to teenagers exposing their everything on YouTube, the very existence of privacy shrinks by the page view.

That said, Calle doesn’t see much of a connection between her work and social media. “I am not doing a blog,” she told Standard Culture in a recent phone interview. “I have an attraction, not to know somebody’s life, but to know details, for example which way he sleeps, on which side of the bed.” Beds, especially the ones in hotel rooms, have long held a certain fascination for Calle, and feature in a number of her works. “I always like to think about who occupies my bed before me. I always think about the life of the room.”

Sophie Calle “Rachel, Monique” (2014)

And speaking of resting places, for her new show, Rachel, Monique (a sequel to last October’s Paula Cooper show inspired by her mother), Calle features that room we never check out of. The video of her mother’s death was actually never intended as an art piece. She had set up the camera so that she wouldn’t miss any last words or wishes. It was only later that she decided to present it publicly.

Calle explains the video’s title, Couldn’t Capture Death, which seems somewhat ironic as the subject matter portends to do just that: “For 11 minutes, I couldn’t figure out if she was dead or alive. I can say what were her last words. I can say the last person she met—the last book she read—but I could not see the last breath. Death was impossible to capture or to know.”

But did she see a soul escaping the body? Does she even believe in the soul? Her response is a succinct, “Non.” And if you think the decision to present the work in a church is supposed to be a nod to the afterlife, think again. A sign at the entrance puts a rest to that: “My mother was not a Christian, but she couldn’t resist Fifth Avenue.”

“Rachel, Monique” will be on view May 9 to June 25 at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest on 90th street and Fifth Avenue.

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