Sophie Calle, the French conceptual artist, spent last weekend in Brooklyn’s famed Green-Wood Cemetery helping visitors take their secrets to the grave. Well, not exactly a grave: a special obelisk on a plot that the cemetery has given to Calle and Creative Time for the next 25 years. The marble obelisk, engraved with the words “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery,” has a slot, where visitors can slip notes containing their written secrets. The “grave” will be periodically emptied every few years, when Calle plans to ritually burn the messages in a public performance.
But this past Saturday and Sunday, in a special inaugural event, Calle sat on a chair atop Bay Grove Hill, an old section of the cemetery dotted with 19th-century tombs and mausoleums. Visitors who signed up and waited in line sat in a chair facing Calle and shared their secrets with her. Although they were given small white cards and envelopes so that Calle could transcribe their private words, she instead scribbled them onto a notepad on her lap, tearing off each page so the visitor could seal it in the envelope and deposit it in the obelisk. “You become a vault,” Calle told the Cut. “A lot of people cried. Some people were proud of their secrets, not ashamed. I don’t know if people invented them or not.”
Calle herself is no stranger to cemeteries. As a child she crossed one several times each day to get to school, and considered it almost her playground. “I started my life near a graveyard. I am always attracted by them. When I go to a city I don’t know, I always go see the graveyard,” she said. “Maybe the deaths of my mother and father [in 2006 and 2015, respectively] were part of the motivation to create some strange poetic moment in a graveyard. All my work has a tendency to revolve around absence.”
Calle is famous for her unorthodox and often ephemeral art projects, such as filming her mother’s dying moments in Couldn’t Capture Death. Or, in Take Care of Yourself, collecting the responses of 107 women to her own ex-boyfriend’s breakup email. The artist has already bought a plot for herself in a cemetery she once photographed, in Bolinas, California, next to the grave of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But Calle has said she would like to end up in Montparnasse Cemetery, where both her parents are buried. She and her father used to picnic once a year there on her mother’s tomb.
On Saturday, hosts of people — a grand total of 4,236 — congregated in Green-Wood. Many spent the time before their assigned sessions taking a guided tour of the cemetery, where such celebrities as Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat were laid to rest. Some, like Sophia Tsanos, were longtime fans of the artist. “She is very engaged, and she listens,” she said, after unburdening herself to Calle. “Art is getting something off your chest.” Mayrav Fisher, a “fan of Creative Time and Sophie’s work,” said she found the experience “cleansing. I felt very safe and strong. It was something I had only told to therapists before. With her it really felt different. It felt cathartic.”
Others saw it as something more of a social event. Mini Gu and Jordan Mendoza were meeting there for the first time on a Tinder date. Gu confessed to finding the experience “a little underwhelming.” (But she and Jordan thought they would probably see each other again.)
As the warm afternoon waned, the earlier soft breezes became a strong gusty wind, whipping the hair of people still waiting in line. Naomi Baigell, one of the last to tell Calle a secret, mused, “Who knows who else will hear it? I am talking about the spirits.”
When Calle, wearing a long checked dress, finally made her way down the hill toward the obelisk, there was, indeed, a sense that she had two audiences: those who had come to participate in her performance in Green-Wood — and those who were there to stay.
Visit creativetime.org for more info on how to pay a visit.