In 2005, Sophie Calle’s mother found out she had breast cancer. In 2006, as her mother lay dying, Calle set up a camera at her deathbed and recorded the entire process. “I wanted to be there, to hear the last word,” she told ARTINFO. “I didn’t know if she would have something to tell me at the last minute.”
She did. In Absence, Calle’s current show at Paula Cooper Gallery, her mother’s last word, “souci,” appears frequently, rendered in tall, imposing letters that loom above the other pieces.
The French word means “worry” and is often uttered within the phrase “Sans souci” or “Don’t worry.” But Calle fails to include the negative “don’t,” turning the show into an exploration on negatives, positives, and neutrals. Like much of Calle’s past work, Absence acts as a mystery novel that tirelessly searches for a missing person. In this case, that person is her mother.
Using photographs that chronicle Calle’s life during and after her mother’s death, the exhibit explores the liminal space between presence and absence. She creates a world where both qualities can exist at once.
The center wall displays an array of mixed-media works, ranging from framed paintings that repeat the word “souci,” to enlarged excerpts from her mother’s journal, to a photograph of a taxidermied giraffe named for her mother. Next to the giraffe hangs an inscription reading, “When my mother died I bought a taxidermal giraffe. I named it after my mother and hung it up in my studio. Monique looks down on me with sadness and irony.” Here, Calle blurs the line between mother and giraffe, signifier and signified. Other images capture tombstones and crosses inlaid with the word “mother.” Each memento serves as a reminder of the life that once was. They give Calle’s mother a presence in spite of, and often because of, her absence.
On the wall to the right hang images of Calle’s trip to the North Pole, where, in lieu of ashes, she scattered jewelry and photographs of her mother. The bright blue waters neatly contrast with the white lines of Calle’s boat and heaping piles of clean, crushed snow. In one image, bright beads and a black-and-white photograph sit in the ice, half-buried. The talismans serve as a quiet but effective echo of Calle’s mother’s life and provide catharsis for the viewer—a goodbye.
Another wall documents a trip Calle took to Lourdes, a small town in the south of France, while her mother was dying. Many of the photos capture the mundane—street signs, shuttered shop windows—objects notable to Calle but not the viewer. Long, poetic narratives accompany each photograph. But these dirge-like descriptions overshadow the work they’re meant to enhance. The low-contrast group of images have a prosaic appearance; they’re easy to overlook. In this group, only a few lines of narrative mention Calle’s mother. One section reads, “Was my mother a good mother? I’m already using the past tense.” Despite these reflections on how we grieve for those still living, the Lourdes project lacks the visceral, emotional pull of the rest of the show.
In what at first seems like an arbitrary curatorial choice, an adjacent room contains works from Calle’s new series, Purloined, based on artworks stolen from museums across the world. She photographs the spaces where the art was once displayed, and accompanies the images with long descriptions of the stolen works by guards, curators, and other museum staff members.
The room feels like an intrusion into the intimate examination of Absence. Still, the two series begin to merge. Both meditate on the discussion that surrounds disappearance. The lengthy descriptions in Purloined mirror the narratives that appear in Absence. Again, the photographs become the secondary element; the viewer looks toward the descriptions of the stolen works for an indication of what once was. Together, the exhibits attempt an investigation, forcing the viewer to take mere words as inscrutable evidence and wonder if they are enough.
Sophie Calle’s Absence is on view at Paula Cooper Gallery through November 16, 2013.