Last Calle

Sophie Calle at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (Photo: Leandro Justen)

SOPHIE CALLE WAS SMOKING AND TEXTING on stone steps in a green velvet dress, which I wanted to touch. She said sure, so I felt up the hem. It was heavy, deluxe. I asked her where she got it, and instead of answering, she asked me why I liked it. Suddenly I heard myself talking about my childhood, my mother who sewed dresses, and the velvet dresses I always asked her to make me, even after I knew how much the material cost. I stopped, embarrassed. Was I telling a secret? But anyone could see I had been a child, and it was obvious green velvet would suit me. Calle opened a map on her phone and asked if I knew the address where we were. I said that we were in Brooklyn, and that if she searched for Green-Wood Cemetery Chapel on the map, the address and directions would be given. “No,” she said. “That is not the right answer.” She went inside, where seventy were being seated for dinner, accompanied in silence by an unplayed pipe organ.

The occasion was the opening of a new public artwork by Calle, presented by Creative Time, called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. A high knoll is now home to a slight marble obelisk with a single slot, into which a visitor may slip a piece of paper (provided) on which she’s written whatever she wants to hide. It’s a quicker way of taking something to the grave. Twenty-five years from now, the work will be over, the secrets safely cremated––unless a thief who is also a handwriting expert gets there first.

Asked to give a speech, Calle began by looking around and announcing that “none of the people at the dinner had played the game.” (“The game” was what she was calling the work.) One woman raised her hand, au contraire. Calle seemed to wonder whether the other sixty-nine guests deserved a speech, and abruptly sat down. “When I have an idea,” she said, “I’ll start again.”

A man sitting next to me took a pen from his pocket and wrote this line on his place card in cursive. I asked him why. Surprised, he said simply: “Because I love her.” Calle had changed his way of thinking about the world and his work, and in particular had taught him to listen. I asked what his work was. “Communications,” he said. Before joining the New York office of Doctors Without Borders, he was employed by what he vaguely described as a travel company in San Francisco, which he called “San Frantastic.” I did not ask in what year of his communications career he had discovered the importance of listening.

Calle stood up again, having had an idea. She explained that she tried to buy a burial plot in Montparnasse, but the Parisian cemetery, home to some of the most respected corpses in France, doesn’t take reservations. Five or six years ago she bought one in Bolinas, California, where she lived and started making art at the end of her teen years. Now that she has been offered a plot in Green-Wood, she is wondering how many places she can be buried in, her body split up and deposited, like an inheritance among children, into (plural) graves. Calle said all this as though it had just now occurred to her, and we listened like we were receiving special information; in fact, she had said the same things in a T magazine profile, out three weekends ago. She added only a joke, saying that if she must be buried in one place, and if Montparnasse decides, after all, to reserve her a spot, “I will say no and be buried in Bolinas, because they took me first.”

Left: Katie Hollander, Creative Time executive director, and Elvira Dyangani Ose, Creative Time senior curator. Right: Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson and Peggy Leboeuf of Emmanuel Perrotin. (Photos: Leandro Justen)

Katie Hollander, the director of Creative Time, explained between courses that the foundation had been trying to work with Calle for seven or eight years. Finally, Calle said she had the time and wanted, in Hollander’s words, “to bring a concept to life in a cemetery.” (Zombie conceptualism?) Several months earlier, the people at Green-Wood had told the people at Creative Time that they’d love to collaborate. Fortuitous, I thought. “Cosmic,” said Nato Thompson, the artistic director. “There’s no other word for it.” Thompson had spent his whole life avoiding death but was now beginning to plan for the after party. “I think I want to be cryogenicized,” he told me. “Like Walt Disney.” Hollander was likewise optimistic. “I don’t usually think twenty-five years ahead,” she said, “but now I know that’s how long I have to come up with a really good secret.”

The French-born photographer Pascale Lafay stepped out to find her husband smoking Camels with three different women. Lafay said they had been married in Atlantic City astride a huge wooden elephant and had moved to Jersey City for the studio space. She was working on a series wherein she projected photos of friends’ faces onto identical white plastic masks, “to make the faces more alike, the way plastic surgery makes them alike.” She had been, while living in Paris, “Sophie’s neighbor.” I said that Lafay must know things about Calle that were secret, even if banal: what time the artist got home at night or up in the morning. She said, “I know that people want to know many things about her.” Maybe, I said, she should be buried in Green-Wood next to Calle, so they’d be neighbors again. “No,” Lafay said, strangely. “Never.”

Calle’s neighbor at dinner was the actress Kim Cattrall, who was Samantha on Sex and the City (1998–2004) and has been the voice of Calle’s mother, may she rest in performance, in various iterations of Rachel/Monique (2006). After dessert, Cattrall and her tall younger boyfriend went with Calle to see the obelisk under cover of dark, then to share a ride home—that is, until Calle ghosted, leaving the couple stranded with no cabs for miles. “The first thing she said to me at dinner was that I was late, and the second thing was that I hadn’t seen the art,” said Cattrall. “Halfway through dinner, she says again that I was late. Of course she’s totally joking. Well, not totally. Then as soon as she’s satisfied, she disappears! That is so Sophie.” I was about to take a car to the city. Of course I could drop Cattrall off. “Park Avenue, please,” said the actress, and proceeded to talk in the backseat, in her luculent, stage-trained way, for the next forty minutes.

Sophie Calle. (Photo: Heidi Krautwald)

Years ago, an editor at W called Cattrall to tell her a story. “I thought he was going to tell me about a Calvin Klein model committing suicide,” she said, “or whatever it is that editors talk about in fashion.” He relayed, instead, that the magazine had done a piece on Ingmar Bergman at his far-out island home and that Bergman said his favorite TV show, which he liked to watch alone in his screening room, was Sex and the City, and his favorite character was Samantha. I would not have taken Bergman for a Samantha. “Nor would I,” said Cattrall. “It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Nothing embarrassed him.” Elaborating on her love for Bergman’s 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, she noted that television doesn’t often get to “the grist of reality,” and said that, in acting, “the truest thing you can express is often the most painful.”

Calle seems to think so too. “With Sophie,” said Cattrall, “you know she’s trying to open you up emotionally, and you know she’s going to play on your vulnerabilities in a subtle and mysterious way, and you think, ‘I know what you’re doing, you can’t fool me.’ Then as soon as you get in your head and forget about your feelings, bam! She’s got you.”

The next afternoon I went to the cemetery, where a tired Calle was taking secrets in person. Of the four thousand visitors who came that day, three dozen had been chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis to share their secrets with the artist face-to-face, seat-to-seat, on two benches. When she had seen the last visitor and heard her secret, Calle stood and held her gray wool blanket aloft like a surrendering soldier’s flag. The visitor, with her professional camera, snapped quickly a triptych: Calle talking and laughing at the camera, then laughing at the sky, then at us. The knoll drained slowly, abscess-like. “I thought it would be bigger,” said a post-teen goth with a Gucci backpack. “The thing?” asked her goth friend, meaning the obelisk. “Or the idea?”

The last visitor’s name was Heidi Krautwald, a German photojournalist living in Kiel. She had been in New York for two months; it was her last day in town. “I only had a little secret,” she said. “For Sophie, it was okay. She was happy to end with something light.” An hour later, Krautwald sent me two of the three photos. I wrote back asking what Calle had said when she lifted the camera, but she didn’t reply.

Sophie Calle's Here Lie the Secrets of The Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. (Photo: Sarah Nicole Prickett)