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Sophie Calle's 'Rachel, Monique'

The legendary artist takes over Palais de Tokyo for an exhibition mourning the death of her mother while also celebrating life

Ex-lovers, family members, strangers on the street: those around Sophie Calle often become involved, sometimes without their knowledge, in her multi-media pieces that debate the nature and boundaries of intimacy. Her current show, ‘Rachel, Monique’, held at the Palais de Tokyo’s new space, a 9,000 square meter basement still in a state of construction, follows her mother’s recent death in a reportage-style, and simultaneously celebrates her life and personality. “She was a woman who loved attention, and would have loved the show” said the artist. Dazed Digital met up with Sophie Calle in her flat in the Parisian outskirts, sat in her kitchen and talked about love, loss and creation.

Dazed Digital: How did you adapt the show to this new space and building-site like appearance?
Sophie Calle:
We had very little time and very little money. We were given an authorization to put on the show eight days before the opening, and no budget had been kept aside for this space. So we took whatever we found and kept the neon lights. I didn’t stage the place in any way. The remnants of posters on the walls were already there, I placed the works around the holes; I put flowerpots under a leak from the ceiling. But the funny part is, in some cases, people didn’t know which was a work of art and what was just a hole in the wall. Of course, having notice boards and clean displayers felt a little too fancy for the space, so instead I stuck pieces of papers directly on the walls, and used shipping boxes as displayers.

DD: Some had been seen during the last Venice Biennial; others had never been shown before…
Sophie calle:
Yes, ‘Lourdes’ and the ‘North Pole’ pieces had already been shown, but the ‘Souci’ pieces hadn’t been exhibited before. My mother’s grave with all the objects inside hadn’t either, nor had the photos, scribbles and post-it notes from her – although arguably these aren’t really art works, they’re just souvenirs.

DD: One of the pieces is a series of photos of graves that simply say ‘Mother’ on them. Are those real graves?
Sophie Calle:
Yes, these are graves I found in America, all inscribed with the family status. I found them interesting because a mother is also a daughter, possibly a sister – yet it is motherhood that is remembered.

DD: Talking of graves -- you used to go for walks in cemeteries with your mother as a child, correct? Do you still do this today?
Sophie Calle:
Yes, I still like going for walks in cemeteries because they are a poetic, calm place, with statues, trees, silence. Growing up, my school was on the other side of Cimetierre du Montparnasse, so I had to cross it on a daily basis, it was a functional, familiar places dissociated from death.

DD: Were you apprehensive about the show?
Sophie Calle:
Yes, I was anxious because this show means a lot to me, because this is my mother we’re talking about, and I feel especially close to it. I was worried people were going to come out and say ‘Why won’t she shut up about her mother?’. Also, in relation to the video of her dying, shown in the exhibition, I feared people would accuse me of utilizing my mother’s corpse. It was an act of love, not aggression. I am not trying to add another show to my resume. My mother loved attention and I show her in a very noble, elegant way.

DD: Do you think people still have a difficulty watching death?
Sophie Calle:
Yes, they do on video. They have gotten used to descriptions of agony and death, in literature, painting, photography – just look at the photos of children’s corpses in Louisiana, this has become a common iconography. Yet, with a moving image it is different. In the case of my mother’s video, perhaps it was the fact that at the beginning she isn’t dead, but then, she is. At the beginning, if you look closely, you can see her breathing for the last time.

DD: You often work on projects focused on people you have an intimate relationship with, lovers, husbands – does it change the relationship to them forever?
Sophie Calle:
The relation to that person changes for simple reasons. For example, the piece ‘Prenez soin de vous’: for the first 2-3 months, I feared that the man who left me and triggered that project would try to take me back: I knew that if he did, I would go back to him because I was in love with him, and would have to stop the project. But I also knew I preferred the project to our relationship, it gave me more pleasure than our love story.

DD: So are you grateful to him now?
Sophie Calle:
Yes, we have become close friends now, and I am thankful to him because he reacted in a very noble way, without guilt-tripping me, threatening me or complaining. He just said ‘do what you like, we’ll see later.’ In other words, he gave me a beautiful project. My husband too, Greg Shephard – instead of looking back on a catastrophic year, I focus on the film we made together. So yes, it changes everything once you created something with them, or via them. It removes the bitterness from the memories.

DD: So do you need to be heartbroken to create?
Sophie Calle:
Well, when I’m in love, I don’t need to step out of it, to observe what is going on and describe it. I’d rather live it.

DD: What are your upcoming projects?
Sophie Calle:
I don’t have an outlined future or plan. Where an idea arrives, it imposes itself and sets its own rules. I have no idea where and who I’ll be working with next.

'Rachel, Monique' is on at Palais de Tokyo until November 27