All About Her Mother: Sophie Calle


Lovers, strangers, family members, everyone who crosses the life of artist Sophie Calle is implicated in her multi-media tests of the porosity of intimacy and public space—famously without their knowledge or against their will. Buried amidst the Palais de Tokyo’s brand new art space—a 9000-square-meter basement that connects to the neighboring Musée d’Art Moderne—she explores one of her all recurring, obsessive interests, her recently passed mother. The show “Rachel, Monique” is in fact named for the latter, and its central tropes are the maternal figure and the transcendence from life to death. Calle shows films, post-it notes, and photos, some previously one view at the Venice Biennale, others for the first time. Art in America met with Calle in her Paris studio to talk about the shadows of parental figures and remaining close after death.


ALICE PFEIFFER: What appealed to you about putting on a show in such a raw space as the new basement to the Palais de Tokyo?

SOPHIE CALLE: I guess it was the resemblance to a mausoleum. The space feels like entering a crypt. I liked the idea of not knowing where you were exactly, because this space doesn’t have a precise status yet. It looks and used to be abandoned, and this allowed me to keep an element of mystery to the project whilst losing the intimate aspect of it between my mother and I.

PFEIFFER:  Most of the works have already been shown before. What impact does this space have upon them; does this imply a second reading?

CALLE: I don’t ask myself that kind of question; this isn’t my area, it is the journalist’s work. I just visualize the show there, that’s all. But the security parameters, the imposed wire fences, were something I could play with and place pieces behind. All the holes on the wall were already there, I didn’t decorate the space. I put the texts directly on the walls because the idea of graffiti seemed necessary in such a space, the idea of framed notice boards seemed a little too fancy.

PFEIFFER:  You have produced numerous pieces and shows about your mother. Why did you decide to work on her again?

CALLE: Because I realized that she had traveled through my work everywhere except New York and Paris, which were her two favorite cities. Showing the film of her death was feasible in a smaller gallery, surrounded with other works, but in such a space, it didn’t work on its own and so I looked for pieces to accompany it. And since I have many pieces linked to my mourning of my mother, I could put up an entire show.

PFEIFFER:  What would your mother’s reaction have been?

CALLE: If I did it, it’s because I knew she would have liked it. She liked to be the center of attention; she would have loved to see her name on the poster. You see her dying calmly, softly, imperceptibly. If she had died in pain, I would have never showed that. I did this show because it was in my nature to do it, and because to me it was homage, not an instrumentalization of her corpse.

PFEIFFER:  Is the show inevitably addressing every viewer’s own mother?

CALLE: You tell me. I was talking to mine, but if I’m addressing everyone’s mother, that’s wonderful. My starting point was mine, I wanted to think about her and show her. But when I saw people’s reaction, in Venice or here, I realized it was their own mother they were seeing. I heard people crying, I saw a woman who stayed there for two hours and who I had to take out of the show myself.

PFEIFFER:  Narratives always play a strong role in your work – what ‘story’ are you telling the viewer about your mother in this show?

CALLE: Everything is already said in the show. I’m not trying to tell you about one aspect of my mother, I talk about her that’s all. I don’t know how one experiences the show, I wasn’t not thinking about this at the time. I just wanted to film her death because I feared not being there at the very last moment, or missing a final word from her to me. Apparently people always choose to die the minute you look away, so I wanted to be there.

PFEIFFER:  Can you tell us about the experience of following and filming your mother’s death. What was her reaction?

CALLE: When I switched on the camera in the hospital, she said, “At last!” I realized while making the film that my mother saw the camera as a substitute for me when I wasn’t there. This way I could go rest and she wouldn’t feel alone. Also, it was a way of displacing the anguish, instead of counting the minutes she had left to live, I counted the minutes left on the tape.

PFEIFFER:  And since it is done, can you look at the show?

CALLE: Well, I could as long as I had to work on it: I filmed for 71 hours, and kept 11 minutes so that film had become my screensaver, so to speak. But once I saw it finished, during the opening, I burst out crying. It was when I didn’t have any more decisions to make that I realized I could no longer watch it. But since she is dead, I have never spent that much time with her. She is with me all the time, I make shows for her, she travels with me, we’re talking about her right now. We’re the closest we’ve ever been.