Sophie Calle’s “Rachel/Monique” is currently on view at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on upper Fifth Avenue, a ZIP code the artist says the eponymous subject—her mother—would have appreciated, “because she always loved the Upper East Side.” The show, which wrests with the life and death of the woman most often known as Monique Sindler, is full of things she would have liked. Indeed, she liked being the subject of one of her daughter’s works. As Calle writes,
My mother liked to be the object of discussion. Her life did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed in which she lay dying—I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid that she would pass away in my absence—she exclaimed: “Finally!”
The space itself is austerely beautiful, and the show’s installation complements the neo-Gothic confines of the chapel—they’ll continue to hold services for the duration of its run. Madame Sindler’s last words were “Don’t worry,” and that last one—souci—is a motif throughout, wrought in a lace hanging, written out in multicolored butterflies on a stone wall, represented by a bouquet—since the word also means “marigold” in French. The prettiness is disarming, but not necessarily misleading. There is no distinction made between prettiness and toughness, prettiness and the macabre, prettiness and death, even.
You sit in a pew and realize that instead of a prayer book, the rack holds the bound volumes of Mme Sindler’s selected diaries. Further into the chapel, audio plays: Kim Cattrall—a favorite of Sindler’s—giving voice to those same words. As is her wont, the artist does not spare herself; we hear her mother speak of her daughter’s “selfish arrogance.”
Calle shows us her mother’s coffin: filled with things she loved.
Her white polka-dot dress and her red and black shoes, because that is what she chose to wear for her death.
Handfuls of sour candies, because she gorged on them.
Stuffed cows and rubber cows, because she collected cows.
Volume one of À la recherche du temps perdu by Proust, in the Pléiade edition, because she knew the first page by heart and recited it whenever she got the chance.
A postcard of Marilyn Monroe with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, because Marilyn was her idol.
A postcard of Ava Gardner, because when people met her for the first time, that is who she claimed to be.
A Christian Lacroix silk scarf, because she was a coquette.
A book from the “Que sais-je?” collection on Spinoza and Spinozism, because she began studying the subject a month before she died.
Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano K.376, K.377, K.359, and K.360, because, at the end, Mozart was all she listened to.
A photograph of a sailboat on the Atlantic, because she loved the ocean.
Marlboro cigarettes and matches, because she smoked a lot.
Vodka, rum, and whisky, because she loved to drink.
Paper, a pencil, and an eraser, because she dreamed of writing.
A MoMA membership card, because of New York.
Photographs of the love of her life, her friends, her children, her brother, and a few lovers, because she loved them.
Photographs in which she felt she looked young and beautiful.
A photograph of a parasol pine, because it was planted at Courtonnes-les-Deux-Églises the day after her death, and it bears her name.
A few flowers—soucis (marigolds), because souci was her last word.
A tribute to her life, and loves, and that peculiar mixture of unselfconscious vanity and unselfconscious seriousness that we Americans so fetishize in French women. And yet, when I asked Calle about it at the show, she said this had not been one of her mother’s explicit wishes—“it was for us, things that reminded us of her”—and not one of the many details she had prescribed for her own funeral. Who is it for, you want to ask—I did ask—the artist or her mother? The living or the dead? But Calle doesn’t appear to concern herself with this sort of abstraction, nor with the nature of femininity, nor motherhood, nor the intersection of vanity and narcissism and art which has made her work such a lightning rod, and so curiously freeing to the viewer. Obviously, when you see the show you wonder about all of it. And you find it beautiful, in some ways you understand and in others you don’t. I asked Calle if she had taken to planning her own death; she has, a bit. You find yourself wanting to.
Calle says her mother had certain literary ambitions—vague ones. “She was too lazy to do anything about it,” says her daughter; in her diary, she bemoans the same—indeed, the journal becomes something of a monument to perceived futility. But she is a strikingly good writer. And now, a published writer—on terms that are at least somewhat her own. Similarly, because she died without fulfilling her dream of going to the Arctic, Calle went after her death—carrying in her suitcase her mother’s portrait, Chanel necklace, and diamond ring. It was nothing occult or superstitious. But then, what is superstition?
When I visited the exhibition, a few days before its formal opening, it was on the same evening that the church opened the chapel up to its parishioners; it was a full house. The minister joked it was the biggest congregation the church had attracted in a long time. Calle, who, prior to the show, had never attended a service, apparently spoke from the pulpit. As her mother wrote, “My God, how brave people are in general and how hard it is for everyone to go on living.”