In Green-Wood Cemetery, Sophie Calle Invites You to Bury Your Secrets
Most people come to graveyards to bury the dead. But on a recent Saturday, several hundred people arrived at South Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery with an unusual goal: to inter their deepest, darkest secrets.
It’s noon and the sun shines through trees heavy with cherry blossoms onto 100-year-old headstones. Visitors make their way through the hilly landscape, with its imposing mausoleums. Green-Wood houses the graves of wunderkind painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and infamous mobster Joe Gallo. But the site they're headed toward is different. Here, two wooden chairs are set up on the grass. One is occupied by a woman wearing a checkered dress, large tinted glasses, and a small smile. The other is empty, and waiting.
The woman is Sophie Calle, the 63-year-old French artist known for conceptual projects that plumb the depths of human relationships, fears, and desires. Her previous work has taken various forms: following strangers; dissecting found diaries; and asking women she doesn’t know to respond to a break-up letter from the artist’s former partner. At the cemetery, Calle is orchestrating a powerful ritual that addresses many of the themes that have long occupied her. The project, commissioned by Creative Time and titled “Here Lie the Secrets of The Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery,” is part performance, part sculpture, and part confessional for those who participate.
Visitors to the interactive piece are handed a program, like the kind you might receive at a funeral, which doubles as a press release and guide. In it, the artist tells the project’s origin story. It is also inspired by an ex-lover, who, as she explains, broke up with Calle and then told her a “terrible secret, which had poisoned his life.” As their affair was ending, she suddenly felt closer to him than she ever had: “At the very moment he was depriving me of his love, this man offered me, through his confession, the ultimate proof of our intimacy,” she writes.
The tale lays the groundwork for Calle’s piece, which invites visitors to unload their own secrets. For the piece’s inaugural weekend, Calle is on-site to listen and transcribe these confessions herself. After that, guests are asked to write their secrets down, dropping the sensitive papers into a hollow stone obelisk, designed by Calle, that resembles a gravestone whose face has been chiseled with the words “Here Lie the Secrets of The Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery.”
When I visit, on opening day, the obelisk is surrounded by people of all ages. Some are chatting and picnicking; others are privately jotting down their secrets on a sunny patch of grass. I join the queue to tell my secret in person to Calle, who is sitting on the hill’s crest, a spring breeze fanning her hair.
Some of the people around me in line came to Green-Wood knowing exactly what they wanted to tell Calle, who has promised to keep the secrets divulged to her. Other visitors are still racking their brains, discussing their options. One wonders which kind of secret she should tell: a light one or a dark one? “Which will feel better to acknowledge?” Another muses if he even has anything to divulge: “I’m a very open person.” Someone nearby: “Then why are you here?” He replies: “To figure out whether or not I have a secret.”
I finally sit down in the empty chair across from Calle, who looks me directly in the eye and waits for me to begin. She records the details of my story in looping cursive on a page in her notebook. My secret is a bit long-winded, and Calle asks thoughtful questions, wanting to make sure that she gets it right.
Throughout, I’m reminded of a somewhat similar performance by a another larger-than-life artist. In 2010, Marina Abramović invited MoMA visitors, one by one, to gaze silently into her eyes. Her intention for the performance was to probe the relationship between artist and audience. No words were exchanged, but some visitors were famously moved to tears.
I didn’t personally sit with Abramović during “The Artist Is Present,” but I did watch others participate. They perched rigidly in the quiet white-cube gallery, a table between them and the performance artist. The scenario at Green-Wood, with grass and graves at our feet, was decidedly more intimate than Abramovic’s highly orchestrated, silent blockbuster, which seems sterile in comparison.
At the end of our conversation, Calle hands me the piece of paper upon which she has recorded my story. I had shared a fairly emotional secret, but I find myself smiling as I walk away from the artist. Other visitors seem to have similar reactions; I don’t see a single person who’s not beaming after their audience with Calle.
Perhaps they’re feeling what I am: a relief similar to that which follows opening up to a therapist or good friend. But Calle enhances that buoyant sensation by introducing a element of ritual. We’re not only releasing a secret that’s been tucked away, but writing it down, burying it—and burning it afterward. Calle’s plan is for the obelisk to remain installed for at least 25 more years; whenever the grave of papers beneath it fills up, the cache of handwritten secrets will be set on fire.
Like all of Calle’s best work, her Green-Wood project draws a strong connection between private and public life. While speaking with Calle one-on-one is an intimate and private experience, shedding secrets with a large group—in a public space, under the sun—is one of community.