Sophie Calle Wants You to Take Your Darkest Secrets to the Grave
On a beautiful, late-April day in Brooklyn, thousands of New Yorkers queued up in front of a newly erected obelisk in Green Wood cemetery and waited amid the cherry blossoms. They weren’t there to pay their respects at a burial, however, but to take part in “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery,” a participatory art project by French artist Sophie Calle that will run the next quarter of a century.
Although there were plenty of crowds in attendance on opening weekend, the piece will be far less conspicuous for the rest of its 25-year run. Calle has erected a specially designed monument of simple white marble that blends right in amid the surrounding tombstones, save for its unusual inscription, which bears the artwork’s name.
On the base, there is a small slot where participants can insert their secrets, written down and carefully sealed in an envelope. Whenever the obelisk fills up, Calle will burn the contents, disposing of them at the same cemetery facilities that handle the deceased. It’s a project that is deeply intimate, deeply personal, and inherently cathartic.
(The planned 25-year duration of “Here Lie Secrets” is based on the practice of Parisian cemeteries, where purchasing a grave “for eternity” only guarantees you a 25-year occupancy. If your loved ones don’t keep visiting, the plot can be turned over to someone else.)
As part of the opening festivities, Calle spent the entire day personally manning the project on both April 29 and 30, sitting with participants as they unburdened themselves. She was noticeably exhausted when I met her briefly—many people were moved to tears by the work—but later spoke more in depth about the project in an email.
“The experience was exciting, exhausting, moving, and ambiguous because of the thin line there is between secret and confession,” said Calle, who was conflicted about how to react to these very personal interactions: “Shall I give advice? Stay silent? Have an opinion? I followed my intuition.”
When asked why she chose to set this piece in a cemetery, Calle offered several possible theories. “Maybe because of the expression emporter ses secrets dans sa tombe—to take one’s secrets to the grave—maybe because I like graveyards, maybe because lately I have had a lot of deaths in my life.” (Her mother died in 2006 and her father in 2015.)
Secrets are a strange thing, and who is to say why people are compelled to share them, or how they feel after doing so. For Calle, that isn’t the point. “I just hope,” she said, “that participants had a poetic afternoon.”
“Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery” is on view at Greenwood Cemetery, 500 25th Street, Brooklyn, April 29, 2017–2042.
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