Readings — From the April 2016 issue

Death Watch

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By Sophie Calle, a French conceptual artist, from an interview with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC Radio One that was published in the Winter 2016 issue of Brick. Her work Pas pu saisir la mort (“Couldn’t Catch Death”), a film installation about her mother’s death, was first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

My mother was going to die in the next three months. The doctor was very clear about it. I was told that when somebody dies, it often happens when you step out of the room — then there is the last breath. I wanted to be there. I thought my mother would have things to tell me, stories. I wanted to hear her last words. I like the idea of the last thing, the last moment, the last day. I wanted to be there and be able to say, “This is the last word,” put my finger on it. I realized I could not be beside her bed for twenty-four hours a day, so I put a camera there to record in my absence. The camera became a friendly presence immediately; even when I wasn’t there, I was listening. It was the same thing for me — I displaced the anxiety. Instead of counting the days left to my mother, I counted the minutes left on the tape. And it gave me more freedom to go out. I knew that if my mother had something to say, she could talk to the tape recorder.

When I put the camera by the bed, my mother exclaimed, “Finally.” She always wanted to be the center of attention. She wanted to be the subject of one of my works. She expressed that desire many times, and she was always disappointed when she would appear in one; she always thought it was too short, not enough.

Actually, I was in the room when she died. She had asked me to put on a Mozart piece after her last breath. But I didn’t see any breath, she had been breathing so softly. So for eleven minutes I was touching her heart and her hand to look for respiration, it took me eleven minutes before I understood to put on the Mozart. The last word she said was “souci.” She said, “Ne vous faites pas de souci.” “Don’t worry,” in English. But I could not see her last breath. It was impossible to capture. And those eleven minutes were for me like a no-man’s-land.

We chose a gravestone together before she died. The only thing she did not want was that anybody know her age, so I put the day and month she was born, and the year she died. We discussed what we would write on the stone: je m’ennuie déjà — “I’m getting bored already.”

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