I was very pleased when I found out that a piece by Sophie Calle, “Rachel, Monique” (2006), was exhibited at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, here in New York. With her, the question of how her art is shown is a very important aspect of her work; one really has to be there to experience it. And to me, this coincided with a recent article that Jerry Saltz wrote about how abstraction now all looks the same. He blames this on several factors, but one that I especially noted was the on the value placed on whether a piece is now considered Instagram-able. Indeed, the potential complexities of these works are easily translated into the instant visual language we now all speak, through our new forms of documentation.
However, with this new trend, many important elements are being lost, elements which I found when I went to see “Rachel, Monique.” Although a completely different animal than the abstraction Jerry Saltz refers to in his piece, Calle’s work brings back to mind what he claims “these funky monochromes” are missing. Calle’s scattered objects alone do not stand for much, but all together, create the sense of a whole experience; here, Calle treats the human condition as we will all at some point endure, if we haven’t already experience the death of a loved one.
“Rachel, Monique” is a post-mortem portrait of her mother. Photographs of her mother’s coffin and grave are placed inside found-frames, along with a projected video of her mother's last breath, a recording of her mother’s diary, stitched butterfly wings creating her mother’s last word — “souci” — are also embroidered on laced curtains, all adding up to the shrine the artist has created, and brings together this age-old ceremonial act with art itself.
I cannot think of any stronger message, and perhaps the most important message more recently, when, the art object, as Jerry Saltz clearly put it, is made for “immediate and convenient consumption due to the expectations of the market”. The various elements Sophie Calle has chosen to carefully distribute around the space amount to the documentation of the experience of the death of someone dear, but are not the end in of themselves, as an easy-to-consume product ready to be captured. Isn’t art supposed to transcend? The irony in the secular placement of “Rachel, Monique” in a church is strategic to the metaphor Calle creates to re-affirm, as well as remind the viewer of the original purpose of art.