Making memory in a sacred space

An installation at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York shows the last moments of Monique Sindler who died in 2006. It is a reflection on living and dying in a sacred space.

Sophie Calle was caring for her dying mother and had a worry that is common to caregivers: she did not want to be absent when the moment of death came. Her solution was to set up a video camera in her mother’s room.

When Monique Sindler was dying in her bed in Paris in 2006, Sophie Calle, her daughter and the renowned French conceptual artist, set up a video camera and began taping. The artist, 60, has explained that her reason for the camera was that she didn’t want to be out of the room when the moment of death came. She wanted to hear her mother’s last word and see her last breath, but she had heard that the dying often wait until nobody is around to let go.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t be there if she had a last thing to tell me,” she said this spring in a Skype interview from her home near Paris, where she has mounted a taxidermy giraffe head on the wall and named it after her mother. “The camera made me feel restful because I could sleep in the other room or go out and buy food. When I wasn’t there, I was still there.”

She turned the resulting video into a multi-media reflection on life and death.

Visitors to the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street, can read about this at Ms. Calle’s coming installation. It is called “Rachel, Monique” for her mother, who used both names at various times, and it opens in collaboration with the Paula Cooper Gallery and Galerie Perrotin on Friday. The installation includes a life-size video projection of her mother in her deathbed and a sign that lists the last music she heard and last word she spoke, which was “souci,” meaning “worry.” And in a clergy stall, viewers can hear a recording of a familiar voice reading excerpts from Ms. Calle’s mother’s diary, translated into English: It is Kim Cattrall, of “Sex and the City,” who had offered her services after she heard Ms. Calle in a marathon 30-hour reading of the diaries last summer in Avignon.

It seemed natural and appropriate to the Rev. Elizabeth Garnsey that her parish would host “Rachel, Monique.”

…[T}he Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest had no qualms about opening their hallowed doors. In fact, the 150-year-old congregation, which runs a Heavenly Rest Stop cafe with tables in the back of its sanctuary, has timed its exhibition to capitalize on visitors to the Frieze New York Art Fair, opening Friday on Randalls Island. “And for us, death is what we deal with daily,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Garnsey, who initiated the installation but is making sure certain parts are removed for Sunday services. “People always come to us for the end of life. So while it might be disconcerting to see this work in an Episcopal church, we think life is about change. And Sophie’s show is full of joy.”

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