Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sophie Calle at Paula Cooper

Somewhere between the psychological analysis of mourning and pure human reaction to mortality  lies Sophie Calle’s  Absence. Calle shows her virtuoso of tactility by leading the viewer through her exhibition with many material approaches of text, photography, sculpture and documentation to form a memorial of her mother’s passing from breast cancer. The entry to the main gallery first confronts the audience with a simple letter from Sophie Calle to curator Daniel Buren explaining why she will not show the film documenting her mother’s last moments due to the commercial nature of the gallery. Starting with a denial to show a piece, Calle then sets a much slower pace to the show by placing photographs of her choosing with framed text from her mother’s diary dispersed on gallery walls.

This main space contains three groups of works titled “Where and When? Lourdes, 2005-2008”, “Rachel, Monique, 2007-2013”, and “North Pole, 2009” which all operate to construct one story of love, loss and human mortality. Calle constructs a poetic portrait of her mother on the back wall through quotes and pages from the diary accompanied by photographs that remind and resemble her mother’s spirit . Among these pieces, Calle frames her mother’s last word printed over and over again, “souci”. The most telling piece is in text, neatly framed that quotes the mother’s diary from December 1985- December 1996, and ends in “ I died in a very good mood”.  By pointing out such peculiar parts of the diary, the daughter describes her mother’s attitude towards death that was not even 10 years away. Memory and mourning clash to form a recollection of the artist’s mother in a poetic yet individualistic light for the artists especially in the piece where the image of a stuffed giraffe Monique hangs as a memorial to Monique the mother.

The wall to the right displays a piece titled “North Pole, 2009”. Spaciously placed on the vast wall it serves as a documentary to a homage Calle made to the North Pole in the name of her mother. The most striking are the three plaster panels that have the text describing the voyage carved into them, white on white. The ghostly panels accompany documentary photographs of a diamond ring, a necklace, and a mother’s portrait that Calle took to the North Pole. Her mother desired to go there but never made it before her death. The orchestrated vision of commemoration flows into the third piece “Where and When? Lourdes, 2005-2008” where there is a deep sense of regret and time lapse. The vital portion of the piece is a number of marble tiles attached to the floor with names of various diseases and old diseases, black on white except for breast cancer. The silent frustration shows through the multiple diseases that have been cured except for the one that killed the artist’s mother. The photographs on the wall suggests the frustration with the time passage in a way that it makes the viewer pity such unfortunate miss, as if the cure is not far from grasp.

Sophie Calle is the master of getting too personal by letting her audience penetrate through her vision slowly, painting a portrait of human experience of mortality. Through bits and pieces the fragmented three pieces in the main room, the viewer becomes hyperaware of the various steps of mourning and acceptance of one’s love one’s passing.  (revised)


  1. She is such a virtuoso in manipulating of the real. She often utilized real people she has an intimate relationship with but creates narrative fictions about them. I think you described her fiction beautifully by depicting the details of the works in the show. Just one more thing I can wish for this review is adding a critical point how her objects can stand in art context. For instance, a stuffed giraffe, names it Monique after her mother and anonymous graves that she founded in America can make the viewers confused whether her objects are arts or just souvenirs. I did see the answers in your review, but it was rather explanations of work in general than critical.

  2. You did a good job of tying together the three distinct pieces of the exhibition. It might serve to mention, at least in passing, that there is another piece in a separate room about stolen artworks. It connects thematically to the rest of the show (loss of a loved one/loss of a loved painting) and, although it seems to have been presented as being separate from the main exhibition, might deserve a sentence or two.