The Artist Who Stalked Death and Couldn’t Capture It

Sophie Calle is a French contemporary artist with the reputation of a “stalker”, a term used by Stuart Jeffries on the UK Guardian (see here)

Source: From UK Guardian’s article “Stalker,stripper, sleeper and spy”

Whatever the right term, she is famous for being extremely intrusive in other people’s lives – for example, introducing herself in a hotel room and photographing the mess left by the guests, turning the set of photos into a work of art.  In 2006, she trained a video camera on a dying woman, filming her for days and nights, throughout her agony (she was dying from cancer). She extracted from this film footage a video lasting some 11 minutes – the video isn’t about anyone. 

It was her mother dying. 

Why did she do it? Because, she says, she was afraid she wouldn’t be there at the exact moment her mother passed away. Eventually, she  created a multi-media installation (with photos, text, memorabilia etc) where the edited video remained the central piece. 

Here is an excerpt of the video:

You can hear the noise of conversations and see people touching her, yet there is no sense of the precise moment when her mother died. The face in profile never moves, as if it were a still photograph.

Starting in 2007, the installation-cum-video toured across Europe and now, seven years later, it has reached America and is shown at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in upper Manhattan while the Frieze New York art fair is ongoing on Randall Island (for info, see here).

Why would anyone film the dying? Professor Emma Wilson (University of Cambridge) who has published a book  on the matter, titled “Love, Mortality and the Moving Image“, notes in an article (here) that such filmmaking can be “palliative” – a way to “organize” death, “giving a sense of control in the face of brute, annihilating emotions”. 

No doubt, that was Sophie Calle’s objective.

I remain however with an uncomfortable sense that, while this may well have considerable therapeutic value for the persons directly concerned by the death, it cannot be considered art – just because an artist sets up a camera trained on a deathbed and gets it running. I know that in contemporary art it is enough for a piece to be declared “art” if the artist says so. But it seems to me that art is about communication, sharing something together as humans, and therefore the audience should also have a say in the matter, before a “piece” can become “art”.

The video here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed yourself, is extremely “rough and raw”. No efforts were made to change the viewpoint or do any manipulation. The video fails in one major aspect: it doesn’t catch the “decisive moment” (the moment of death) as Henri Cartier-Bresson would have it. 

The video floats indecisively on the screen, it comes out in cold colors that could suggest either serenity or melancholy. The dying woman is so still that, if it weren’t for someone taking her pulse, you’d wonder whether she’s alive at all. The only movements and noise come from the people around her. The woman’s total immobility has been interpreted by some as a striking symbol of Death (for example, see Anneleen Masschelein’s paper, here). 

That the exact moment of death couldn’t be “captured” on tape – hence the title of the installation – is viewed as a deep philosophical comment on Death and on the fact that we cannot “understand” it.

Overall, the effect can be eerie, I don’t doubt it, but is it art? 

Does it “say” something to you?

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Harliqueen says:

    There are many things that are considered as ‘art’ that just aren’t. Great post!


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