Review: Artist Sophie Calle’s book “The Hotel” snoops on guests

on the shelf

the hotel

by Sophie Calle
Siglio: 248 pages, $40

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For Sophie Callie, art is a provocation. This applies to both the artist and her audience. In her career spanning more than 40 years, she has blurred the lines between observation and intrusion, documentary and narrative, and the production of books, films, installations and interventions. The Hotel, her most recent work to appear in English, is a case in point: it is a book that records an ongoing surveillance process, in which Callie is hired as a temporary room maid for three weeks in a Venice hotel. Twelve bedrooms were allocated to me on the fourth floor. While doing the cleaning duties, I checked the personal belongings of the hotel guests and noticed, through the details, a life still unknown to me.”

Like much of Kali’s work, I would suggest that such a project has its roots in the realist ethos of psychogeography. But it is less concerned with displacement than collusion. Such was the case in her 1994 installation “Phone Booth” that Kaley outfitted a Manhattan appeal box with food, paper, and other amenities, then recorded the reactions of those who randomly encountered her. This piece is inspired by the novelist Paul Auster, who urged Callie to “choose one place in town and begin to think of it as your own. …Take that place as your responsibility.”

Other obvious precedents are “Suite Vénitienne” (1981) and “The Address Book” (1983), which turn intimacy on its head. Initially, Callie follows a man identified only as Henri B. from Paris to Venice, where she pursues him for twelve days. In the second, Callie photographs an address book she found on a Paris street and interviews contacts about its owner, Pierre D.

The books are a pair of slanted images, but more importantly they raise disturbing and irreconcilable questions about curiosity, privacy, and art. The result is curated works as invasive as they are, collages that reveal as much about Callie and her obsessions as they do with Henri B. or Pierre de. Over a month,” she admits at the end of “Address Book.” “If I come across you on the street, I think I can recognize you, but I won’t talk to you.”

Show book cover

“The Hotel” serves as a companion volume to these books; Like “Suite Vénitienne,” produced in 1981 in Venice, and like “The Address Book,” it relies on bold and at times stunning works of exposure and inquiry. Its setting is very much in keeping with Kali’s aesthetics: it appears to be a matter of fact and very simple – but encoded with intertwining layers of complexity.

On the other hand, Kali is there to do work. These 12 rooms are her responsibility (according to the state of Oster), and throughout the “hotel” she is involved in the dirty chores of cleaning, changing the sheets, and making the beds. On the other hand, she uses guest perfumes and guns on their property, and she explains her experiences in a clinical but escalating record.

In one room, she compares the clothes in a guest’s closet to the packing list she’s also found. She explains, “By the judiciary, this tells me he’s wearing blue pants, a blue shirt, and a windbreaker today.” However, when the man returns as she cleans up, “dressed as I thought,” Callie can’t help but be disappointed. “[H]She is about twenty-eight years old, she says, “with a weak face. I will try to forget him.” It’s as if Kaley wants us to think about our weak connections, reminding us that we’re always building or reinventing the people in our lives.

The key to Kali’s interventions is that she is passive but also active, meaning she is at the mercy of the evidence she finds – books, medicine, wardrobes – while also asserting herself as an observer and participant. Of an early intervention, she wrote, “The double beds have slept. In the trash are banana peels, a bottle of water, and a pair of hard-to-wear black flat heels (they fit me; I take them).”

On the opposite page we see a black and white photo of the shoes.

Both the text and the image here are so improvised that we almost ignore them. However, the ramifications are profound. Did Callie really take a pair of shoes? Is it considered stealing the shoe if the guest left it? This enigma represents Cali’s larger narrative, which is again multiplying upon itself, erasing and refining, not least because the rooms to which the artist returns are always inhabited by another set of guests.

Black and white photos of a hotel room show greeting cards, a trash can with guest shoes and banana peels.

Detail from “Room 28,” including guest shoes that artist Sophie Callie took for herself.

(Photo courtesy of the artist and Siglio Press)

Kali illustrates this clearly in his “hotel” style that eschews chronology in favor of bricolage. The book consists of a series of sequences that detail her exploration of each room. These generally feature some short prose entries and a set of images. As she did in the Address Book, Kali often inserts images out of order, before or after the texts she’s going to explain, destabilizing our sense of structure and time. They also highlight this by arranging the sequences non-sequentially; “It’s my last day at C Hotel,” she wrote in an early paragraph. “I leave it to my successor to observe the differences in the pillows in Room 28.” Six pages later, we’re back to the beginning of her work, with an entry dated February 16.

The effect is to make the time constant, as in a hotel. We stay a few days for business or occasion. It is a deliberate withdrawal from our daily lives. However, we have no choice but to bring these spirits with us, in what we pack and carry, and what we leave on display. For Kali, this creates opportunity; As she steals chocolates, reads postcards and magazines, and catalogs bedside reading materials, we begin to see her subjects, though not entirely—more a collection of glimpses out of the corner of the eye.

We are always aware that the people whose property we monitor are outside of these pages, even when they remain out of their reach. As if to underscore the point, the book itself is lush and masterfully designed, with gilded-edged pages and a wallpaper-like fabric cover in every room. The images include color still images (Calle is specially drawn on the beds, made and unmade) and exude a kind of realistic cruelty, as if they were depicting a crime scene.

The point is that we don’t really know anyone except through surfaces, and that we tell stories to ourselves. We identify each other by our assumptions, based on what we read, wear or eat. Even in an intimate space like a hotel room, humanity’s essential distance remains. Callie wrote of an anonymous “room empty” encounter. “He is finally gone. I air the room and change the sheets.”

As for why this is convincing, there is a voyeuristic side. We are curious to know how other people live. More importantly, it is a passing matter, the fact that we will all eventually disappear. What we leave behind is pretty much the leftovers, crumbs and bits of preserved kale. The irony is that even when we look at the scattered evidence it collects, its subjects continue to elude us. Or maybe that’s the whole idea.

Olin is a former book editor and book critic for The Times.

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