When Sophie Calle’s mother was dying in 2006, the artist propped a camera by the foot of the bed to capture her last moments on film. At the time, Calle, who is considered to be one of France’s foremost conceptual artists, was afraid she wouldn’t be present when her mother passed away. “I wanted to be there, to hear the last word,” Calle recently explained to ARTINFO. “I didn’t know if she would have something to tell me at the last minute.”
Even for Calle, whose most significant works challenge notions of privacy in the name of art, this effort was a bit tricky. Her mother was a lively woman who kept meticulous journals and liked to be the center of attention, but she had never been the subject of one of Calle’s works. When Calle began setting up the camera, her mother’s response was, according to the artist, “At last.” With this tacit permission, Calle filmed for over 100 hours.
The film “pas pu saisir la mort” (“Couldn’t Catch Death”) is an 11-minute document edited from this footage, following moments in which Calle and the attendant nurses were unsure whether Calle’s mother had passed away. Having been shown for the first time at the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007, at the behest of that year’s director Robert Storr — who insisted, and finally persuaded her, to show it — it has gained momentum as a work since, with a showing later in 2010 at the Palais de Tokyo in part of a larger exhibition about her mother’s death, and again in 2012 at the Avignon Festival. It will be making its New York debut in October, in a major exhibition that will be split up over two venues: the Church of the Heavenly Rest and Paula Cooper Gallery, opening on October 17 and 18, respectively.
In its prior showings, the film has also been presented alongside various works from Calle's “Autobiographies,” all of which were made in response to her mother’s passing: including photographs, text-based works, and a taxidermied giraffe. (At the Avignon Festival, Calle also presented a live reading of the entirety of roughly 20 years of her mother’s journals. This time around, there won’t be a reading of the journals, which are not yet translated into English). But the works will be presented in a novel arrangement. This is the first time the works will be shown simultaneously at two separate venues — divided along the lines of sanctity and salability: all of the non-commercial aspects of the show — “everything that is directly her: the body, the coffin, the grave, the death,” said Calle — will be on view at the Upper East Side church.
This includes the film, photographs she took of her mother’s tomb at Montparnasse, and images of her mother’s open coffin, her body covered with sentimental objects placed there by close friends. “On her body,” said Calle, “there was whiskey, Marcel Proust books, cigarettes, and the shoes she preferred.” Calle wasn’t looking specifically for a church. “My mother was not Catholic,” she said, noting that she had also considered the Armory as a potential locale. “I was looking for a non-commercial space that would have some poetry or ritual involved.”
At Paula Cooper Gallery, the main space will present the show “Absence,” which includes text-based works that Calle created based on her mother’s last word, “Souci” (uttered in the phrase “don’t worry”). There will also be works based on two trips that Calle took in the name of her mother, one to the North Pole, where the artist buried her mother’s diamond ring and Chanel necklace in a glacier, and another to the mystical French city Lourdes, where she had gone at the advice of a clairvoyant to explore the idea of miracles.
Simultaneously in the front room of the gallery, Paula Cooper will display Calle's “Purloined” series, a group of works based on stolen paintings that are thematically connected a show of Calle’s work in October at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The film initially seems to lie somewhere between Calle's most personal works, such as “Take Care of Yourself” — for which she asked 107 women to analyze a Dear John letter she received — and her most exploitative, such as “The Address Book,” in which she called the numbers in an address book she found on the streets of Paris and asked each of the people she reached for personal information about the book’s owner, later publishing the information in a newspaper. We can’t help think of the 1980 sci-fi film “Death Watch,” starring Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider, in which a television network seeks to record and broadcast for a reality show the last minutes of a terminally ill woman’s life.
For Calle, however, the works based on her relationship with her mother and her mother's death, including the film, are not about agression or a breach of privacy. “It is an homage,” said Calle. Her mother, she says, liked being the center of attention and was comfortable with, and even seemed to like, the idea of the filming. “She was talking to the camera when I went out,” said Calle. “It became a very friendly element for both of us.”