Sophie Calle, Absence @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 27 works, variously framed and hung against red and white walls in the small front space, the connecting hallway, and the larger main gallery in the back. The show contains works in various media: numerous printed and framed texts, a set of embroidered lace curtains, 5 porcelain candle holders, 68 marble plates, sandblasted porcelain plaques, a sandblasted lead plaque, a Duratrans light box, 2 videos, and more than 50 framed photographs (black-and-white and color analog prints; carbon prints; digital prints, some on Hahnehmühle Fine Art Rag Paper, one mounted on aluminum.) All of the works were made between 1990 and 2013. Many come in both French and English versions, and while a few pieces are unique, most are available in editions ranging from 2 to 6. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Is there a new or a right way for artists to treat the centuries-old subject of death? How do you represent absence or negation in photography? Is it even possible in a medium designed above all else to record presences?

Sophie Calle’s latest show at Paula Cooper, a response to her mother’s passing in 2006, is a typically inventive solution. Instead of giving us pictures of a corpse, the favorite solution of Victorians (and far too many contemporary photographers), she has devised her own moving and yet never solemn set of obsequies.

The front room, with four pieces from Calle’s Purloined series, begun in the 1990s, would not seem at first to have anything to do with her mother. Photos of art stolen from the walls of museums are accompanied by framed texts that commemorate the missing canvases and drawings (a Turner, a Picasso, a Freud, a Titian) in the words of the men and women who guarded them for years.

Only in the context of the works elsewhere in the show that are explicitly about her mother is it clear that both are about the loss of something familiar and precious suddenly being taken away. The unexpected range of responses, with some of these nameless voices less than reverent (“so now people just talk about the burglary”) sound eerily like fractured conversations overheard at a wake or funeral, in theses cases for a beloved if sometimes hazily remembered work of art.

The foyer and main room of the gallery, which one enters after walking through a set of lace curtains embroidered with the word “Souci,” are devoted to Calle’s evolving memorial to her mother. First shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and then at the Palais de Tokyo in 2010, Rachel, Monique (her mother went by these names and others) changes as new pieces are added or old ones subtracted.

It must be said that the earlier (more elaborate) pieces are still the most satisfying. Where or When? Lourdes, from 2005-2008, uses 15 text panels and 17 photos to describe Calle’s visit to a clairvoyant who sends her on a journey to Lourdes. Along the way, the artist records commercial signs–for Sainte Monique and the Hotel La Solitude–that seem to speak to her, both about her mother and her own searching mental condition. In the middle of the floor is an array of 68 marble plates like gravestones on which the names of various ugly diseases have been carved. Calle is not healed by the trip. “No miracle,” she concludes in the final panel. “But I have proved that I am willing.”

North Pole from 2009, another multi-media piece, documents her trip to Greenland, a place her mother wanted to visit but never did. The most poignant image in the entire show is a photograph of her mother that Calle wedges in a tiny rock shelter on a glacier where rough grains of ice and snow have already begun to bury the smiling face.

The funniest of the new works is Autobiographies (I Died in a Good Mood) from 2013. Next to a digital reproduction of her mother playing in the ocean surf hangs a panel with excerpts from Rachel/Monique’s 1980s diary. Assessing which of her daughters is more likely to keep alive her memory after she’s dead, the aging woman observes that despite Sophie’s “selfish arrogance,” she is “so morbid” that she’s the better bet to pay more visits to the grave.

Calle’s skills as a mordant story-teller have always surpassed her originality as an image-maker, and this project is no exception. Photography for her is part of a grander scheme. It’s an autobiographical tool for asking questions about herself or for expressing doubts about ever getting at the truth. For more than 40 years she has been one of contemporary art’s most beguiling seductresses. It is good to see that her mother’s death has only provided this post-modern Scheherazade with more loose ends with which to tease us.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are generally priced between $10000 and $125000, based on series; the Purloined works range from $40000 to $70000, while the Rachel, Monique works sell for between $10000 and $80000 (with the exception of Lourdes which sells for $125000). Calle’s works have been intermittently available at auction in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $65000.

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Read more about: Sophie Calle, Paula Cooper Gallery


  1. Pete /

    ” It is good to see that her mother’s death has only provided this post-modern Scheherazade with more loose ends with which to tease us.”

  2. Cary /

    “the centuries-old subject of death” ?

    Is it that recent?

    (couldn’t resist)

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