Absence, on view now at Paula Cooper Gallery, is comprised of four different bodies of work by Sophie Calle, but Where and When? Lourdes is the most psychologically compelling work. It opens like this: “I had asked Maud Kristen, a clairvoyant, to predict my future so that I could catch up to it and meet it.”
Where and When? includes photographs, texts, and sculptures that document Calle’s series of consultation with a card-reading psychic. After a few false starts, the psychic ultimately directs Calle to Lourdes, the famous religious pilgrimage destination credited with more than sixty miraculous interventions by the Virgin Mary. Throughout the journey to Lourdes, Calle processes thoughts about her ailing mother, a recent break-up, the possibility of random and imminent life changes, and the constant return of absence. She also selectively documents her interactions with the locals of Lourdes, some of them humorous, others profound. But the real project here is to see what happens when Calle surrenders control:
“The point of this game is not to confirm or deny Maud Kirsten’s gift for clairvoyance. I want to let myself be manipulated, controlled. To go into a future that I never imagined and, even if Maud refuses to give me orders, become the passive object of my destiny through her visions. Relinquish myself. Give up.”
Then again, racing after her future is more like an excess of control, a usurpation; it’s like a coup against destiny.
Facing this destabilization of control, Calle encounters resistance on the part of control, in form of rules and customs. -There is crowd control, for example: “A couple walks past. A man with his arm around the waist of a woman pushing a pram. Their looks order me to step aside: a descendant gives you certain rights.” -And there is decorum: “How do I speak to the Virgin? I take advice from friends. ‘If it’s a first interview, say vous not tu,” advises Fabio. Florence suggests: Dear Miss, dear Madam, or dear Virgin. She adds, ‘If you come back in a wheel chair, it means everything’s fine.'” -Finally, there the way Calle records the haunting surveillance of a numerological follower, which is the number eleven. She has a consultation on November 11th at 11am. A ride in train car number eleven. A mass with an audience of eleven. A “medium-size” candle for 5.5 euros. And so on.
Throughout this work, Calle delivers with great agility some combinations of wit and wonder, such as this one about an effervescent interpreter of miracles: “He suggests a meeting with the bishop. ‘You won’t be bored. His name is Perrier, like the sparkling water, and he is incredibly bubbly. The man is unique. He is the only person in the world who does what he does. A doctor who does not treat anyone. A doctor who only examines patients who declare themselves to be cured. A doctor for the miraculously cured.'”
Finally, there are limits to Calle’s willingness to relinquish control. Calle has traveled all the way to Lourdes, and even considered walking there, but now at Lourdes’ sacred grotto, she can’t bring herself to kneel (“That’s going to be difficult.”), nor can she hold her attention for more than the prescribed ten minutes (“I could stay longer, it’s not unpleasant, but the restaurant closes at nine.”).
One lesson from Calle’s story is that absence is not always counterbalanced with physical presence. It’s possible to have both simultaneously. Calle’s mother has three months to live, but Calle already invokes her name in the past tense. “Was my mother a good mother? I’m already using the past tense…”My mother, still alive and already absent.” “Was my mother a good mother?” is the same as “Will she be remembered as a good mother?” which is a speculation about how the future will evaluate the past, not to mention the unattainable standard set by the Virgin Mother; her time-tested criteria make us bound to fail.
The closing line could be the opening to a sequel: “Now the cards know that they can send me anywhere.”