New York

Sophie Calle: Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery

The historic Green-Wood Cemetery is a sprawling, verdant oasis occupying 487 acres of northwest Brooklyn. For centuries, the site has been a sanctuary for mourners as well as a destination for day-trippers—sightseers, birdwatchers, and picnickers who meander landscaped paths and take selfies under blossoming trees. On April 29, 2017, a new memorial was erected on the summit of Grove Hill: a marble obelisk inscribed with the epitaph, “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery.” So marks a twenty-five-year project created by French artist Sophie Calle in collaboration with the cemetery and Creative Time. Celebrated for her rituals, games, and long cons, Calle’s most unassuming and intimate interactions are often transformed into art. Here Lie the Secrets is a repository—a literal and symbolic final resting place—so that our deepest intimacies may be interred into the ground rather than carried with us to the grave.

Sophie Calle, Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery & Perrotin. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Sophie Calle. Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery & Perrotin. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

As I approached the cemetery on foot through the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, I tried to think of a secret meaty enough to divulge. Calle was on site on April 29th and 30th to receive and transcribe secrets in person. Without taking pictures or names, there was a caveat that the artist “might keep a memory of your story, but it will remain anonymous.” Predictably, I came up with nothing—not an unfulfilled desire, taboo belief, or misdeed of any kind, so in lieu of writing something trivial or fabricated, I decided to leave my note card blank. Thus forgoing direct participation, I turned my attention to what appeared to be a number of cathartic confessions imparted to Calle by other Creative Time devotees. Between the two chairs, drama was high; the artist was present. However, for those of us lingering on the margins, the procedure of the piece proved challenging to engage. The marble obelisk is designed with a mail slot to inter secrets into a chamber below the monument for the next twenty-five years. Annually, Calle will return to Green-Wood to oversee the burning of the accumulation. On the heels of Creative Time’s 2016 programs—Duke Riley’s magical Fly By Night and Pedro Reyes’s haunting Doomocracy—Calle’s mediation of public intimacy registered among my fellow observers as a miss.

Calle is not a newcomer to social practice—intimate encounters with others is a hallmark of her oeuvre. In 1979, Calle surveilled a man through the streets of Venice to create her seminal work, Suite Vénitienne. More recently, her project Take Care of Yourself (2007) prompted 107 women to respond to a breakup letter through the media and vocabulary of their choice, resulting in 107 vignettes of dance, music, visual art, and written word. Where Here Lie the Secrets diverges is in the architecture of the open call. Participants were not selected—instead, they showed up. Moreover, only a small selection of secrets will ever be heard or seen by Calle, so by and large, public participation is not fodder for appropriation and fictionalization, as is the case with many of her formative works. With Here Lie the Secrets, Calle shifts the emphasis of the artwork from the story being told (and subsequently hijacked and rewritten into a creative project) to the gesture itself.

Sophie Calle, Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

Sophie Calle. Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson describes the piece as providing a “space for intimate reflection. It is a quiet, personal, and yet also public act.” Calle’s monument is more of a provocation than an object, compelling visitors to meditate on the dual nature of secrecy—intimacies that linger unfulfilled and withheld, or misdeeds with public effect. What is a secret in the digital age, when every movement and click is surveilled, recorded, and sold? Beneath the epitaph, Here Lie the Secrets confronts our contemporary political reality—a reality in which power is strengthened by a strategic balance of secrets and leaks. As Žižek suggests, “The truth liberates us, yes, but not this truth.” There may be secrets, but there is also truth in a cemetery’s stones.

Sophie Calle, Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

Sophie Calle. Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

Moreover, the context of the cemetery provokes a spatio-temporal disruption, which Foucault describes as “absolute break with traditional time.” Leveraging the context of Green-Wood, Calle evokes deeper questions related to time and existence—ideas that were similarly explored in Rachel, Monique (2006), a video work documenting her mother’s death, which made its New York debut at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in 2014. Even so, Here Lie the Secrets is different than previous works, sharing more kinship with Richard McGuire’s time-traveling graphic novel Here, which presents time as an experiential allusion, illustrating scenes, objects, and events from separate centuries within the same frame.  Similarly, Green-Wood’s centuries-old gravestones conjure larger continuities between the evolution of people and culture bound by a specific place.

Sophie Calle, Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

Sophie Calle. Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Leandro Justen.

In the artist statement for Here Lie the Secrets, Calle writes of the confession of a secret as the ultimate proof of intimacy. However, it can be argued that cemeteries—though eternally silent—are profoundly intimate sites where all life intersects. Bringing to mind the title of Calle’s 2001 retrospective Double Game, here too there is a conscious redoubling at work. The obelisk is a classic Egyptian motif symbolizing the connection between heaven and earth, and Calle’s monument can be viewed as a conduit, forging connections across time and generations—uniting us through shared human commonalities, including our inescapable universal end.

Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery is on view at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, through April 29, 2042.

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