For her new exhibition, the French artist invites exhibition visitors to bury their secrets in the Provençal woods
Sophie Calle has considered death an affectionate bedfellow for as long as she has been telling stories – which is to say, all of her life, give or take a few years. Now 64 years old, the French artist has become synonymous with the kind of powerful and yet utterly uncategorisable work that burrows its way into your memory, mingling with your thoughts and ideas and nudging its way into the forefront of your mind for years after you see it. She straddles photography, writing, installation and performance, tapping into intimacy, humanity, fear and human kindness. She has made work for the Freud Museum, and for Eiffel Tower. And her newest effort is based graveside, at contemporary art destination Château la Coste in southeastern France.
La Girafe, 2012
When my mother died I bought a taxidermied giraffe. I named it after my mother and hung it up in my studio. Monique looks down at me with sadness and irony.
DEAD END is a three-part exhibition, but its name is drawn from a piece which doubles up as an installation and a site for performance, buried deep at a dead end in the Provençal woods. There, Calle is inviting visitors to the exhibition to tell a secret – to fill the grave with secrets, in fact – through a letterbox-like slot in the gravestones. This is not her first grave: she has made them previously in New York and Rome – but shown alongside her series dedicated to books, her black and white photographs of tombstones, and a series, Douleur Exquise, dedicated to the most painful moment of both her own and her friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, its impact is magnified. Duly captivated, we asked Calle a few questions about this most recent exhibition.
My mother, my cat, my father, in that order, 2017
My parents each took three months to die. Three months: time for the last gestures of love, time to become an orphan. But not the endless, grinding time of agony and despair, of seeing my flamboyant mother and my impeccable father fall from their heights. A week before she died, my mother refused to see an unwelcome visitor: “Tell him I’m dead!” On the Tuesday before he died, my father complained: “I’d like to go to that new place. We’re losing time. Let’s set a date, we keep delaying, delaying!”
They died just in time, both of them: alive to the end.
I forgot to cut a lock of their hair, and that’s not like me. When my cat died, I saved a tuft of his fur. Florence was relieved: “I’m glad to see that you still distinguish between humans and animals.”
AnOther: What was your experience like walking around the Provençal woods?
Sophie Calle: I searched for a remote area. I wasn’t going to install a grave next to the cafeteria or the restroom. The place I chose was an old Roman road, now a dead end. Perfect terminology for that project.
A: How do you feel now when you think about death? Are you still at ease with it?
SC: See my work, make your own conclusions.
A: Do you believe in ghosts?
SC: Which ghosts? The ones of the people I lost? My memories? It is not a matter of belief… I live with them.
A: What does your studio look like? Do you ever allow people inside it?
SC: I have no studio and no assistant. I write in my bed. I don’t allow ‘people’ inside it…
A: Do you agree with the assertion that all art is simply about sex and death?
A: What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?
SC: I am not impatient anymore. I wait.
A: In the Spring/Summer 2003 issue of AnOther Magazine, you described yourself as an ‘incurable romantic’. Is this still the case?
SC: I am older now, taking some distance with this romantic part of myself.
A: What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
Fabio kissed him. Camille whispered her song, She Was, into his ear. Florence stroked him. Anne put him to sleep. He died. Maurice dug a hole in the garden. I laid Souris in a little white model coffin, the kind travelling sales reps would use before the advent of photography. Too small. His back paws were sticking out. Yves buried him. Serena planted daffodils around his grave.
I received a message on my phone: Sophie, I am sorry about your cat. Could you ask Camille to pick up some vegetables maybe leeks or turnips if she sees any? Kisses.
Sophie Calle, DEAD END, runs until August 15, 2018 at Château la Coste, France.