Home Hotel guest Ela Bittencourt in The Hotel by Sophie Calle (2021)

Ela Bittencourt in The Hotel by Sophie Calle (2021)

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THE HOTEL, BY SOPHIE CALLE. Catskill: Siglio Press, 2021. 243 pages.

ENGLISH EDITIONnow out of Siglio, from Sophie Calle’s seminal photographic essay, The hotel (1984), presents a cover with a floral design and golden letters, which suggest preciousness and the idea of ​​hospitality as distinguished comfort. Yet the French artist ruthlessly unpacks such notions in the series – literally, since she did so while working as a maid in a Venetian inn, looting and photographing private items left by guests in the rooms. and opening their luggage. Calle’s list of playful transgressions is long: she tries on a guest’s Chanel No. 5, transcribes diaries and letters, and occasionally runs away with desserts. Although The hotel does not take place in strict chronological order, but instead revolves around a myriad of opposing dyads – boredom and play, work and leisure, unromantic reality and sensual fantasy – the images are neatly grouped by room number and dated to signal the turnover of the occupants. Calle combines her cool, understated snapshots with sometimes striking compositions and her own acerbic observations, the surreality of which she expresses in a down-to-earth tone. The hotel is therefore a work diary like no other, reversing the idea of ​​intimacy.

As she reduces leisure to prosaic sediment, Calle resolutely constructs her own personality, capitalizing on her anonymity and devaluation as a low-wage worker (“[I] lower my gaze and go”) in a high-flying act filled with optical tensions: on the first page, she states that she hid her camera in a bucket with mops, as if laying down the rules of espionage ; she is always evaluating, in a hurry, barely dodging the danger (“I hear noise, close the suitcase in a hurry”). His snap judgments (“Few clothes, but good quality”; “His handwriting is poor”) parody mimic guest tourist appreciations (“Glassware: Not bad. Cemetery: Fantastic. Gondola ride: Worth it “). Her pushing of boundaries can seem almost Freudian: she eats the rest of a male guest’s croissant (“I’m going to miss him”) and devours a couple’s chocolate candies, twice. Methodical but driven by secret passions, she is an unreliable narrator, scrolling through fantasies like causal deductions. In this direction, The hotelThe cover of the diary is a delightful staging: one enters Calle’s autofiction at one’s own risk and peril.


Cover of The Hotel by Sophie Calle, 1984 (Siglio Press, 2021).

On time, The hotel reads like an upstairs/downstairs comedy revolving around the everyday scuffles of power – something out of Jean Renoir The game’s rules. Calle notices a guest pushing the table back to where it was before placing it (“I put it back [again]”); “for once, the pillows remained as I laid them out,” she notes victoriously, perhaps bitterly, in another entry. Struggling for control, Calle is outspoken on matters of time and money. She contrasts the wastefulness of the guests with her own frugality (finding a pair of discarded pumps: “they fit me, I’ll take them”); their dithering to his 24-hour schedule, in which minutes, not hours or days, are separate units. She associates disorder with excitement, and cleanliness with banality, sharp dichotomies clearly rooted in the monotony of her work: “That immediate feeling of boredom again. I have to force myself to be interested in them.

Rigorous economy, pitting profligacy against thrift, also informs Calle’s formal approach. His almost libidinal appetite for intimate detail comes up against a clinical dissection that leaves desire paralyzed. She can be vulnerable towards hotel guests (“the sight of…the brown leather slippers bothers me”), melancholic (“Fugitive images of a missed encounter”) or dismissive (“He’s dressed as I thought; he’s about twenty-eight, with a weak face”; “I’m already bored with these guests”). She suffers from episodes of visual overstimulation (“I don’t want to take it all today”), followed by depravity (“There’s nothing else to see”; “Do not disturb”), like a drug addict which dispenses smaller doses to avoid shrinkage. Such crazy breeding is reflected in Calle’s images, which range from detached black-and-white snapshots, taken as if Calle is investigating a crime scene, to occasional expanses of hypersaturated color, including close-ups of wallpapers and blankets. rococo induce a sensory overabundance.

In The hotel, language takes precedence over image, the deliberate silence of Calle’s photographs giving the text its confessional brilliance. Admittedly, some photographs invite a forensic allure: a torn crab claw on immaculate white leaves; a bloodstained sanitary napkin stuck to dirty panties on the shower floor; a plastic dildo; a hammer and a black plastic bag, documented as murder weapons. Other images crackle with tongue-in-cheek wit, for example the black-and-white snapshot of an Italian porn magazine whose cover boasts, “Tutto A Colori.” Yet we need the language to be pierced by a more subtle loneliness and sadness, as when Calle extracts a letter from an elderly woman stuck between the pages of a diary (the sender blames her “dear child” his silence and plans to move to a nursing home); or to make us recoil from the dirt of a comb, the grime invisible in a gray image, yet crucial to Calle’s subcutaneous sensitivity to anonymous bodily traces.

Given his dashing predation, it’s no surprise that the term “voyeuristic” is often applied to Calle’s work. Indeed, The hotel is resolutely “turned towards the object”, as Roland Barthes said of the new Romanincluding that of Alain Robbe-Grillet the Voyeur (1955) was a shooting star. Playing on the double meaning of goal, which also means “lens”, Barthes framed the object in the novels of Robbe-Grillet both as a spectacle which, in the obsession of the voyeur, transcends functionality, and as a place of optical resistance, irreducible to a easy extraction of symbolic meaning. An equally tense and trembling “caress” of the object, as Barthes called it, permeates Calle’s work, his own. goal manifest itself in its predilection for distilling human existence down to its material remains. About a couple released on February 19, she ruminates: “The memory that I will keep of them is the obscene image of pajama bottoms, stupidly lying on the chair.” And yet, at the end of the book, Calle’s laconic prose resonates painfully. After all the attention to the unsightly mess that makes us, an unbearable sense of fleetingness suddenly overwhelms the weight of the detritus – a deja vu haunted by mortality. Calle writes of a deceased couple: “They are gone. The only traces of their stay: Nescafé and crackers in the trash. The smell of smoke. The luggage of future occupants has already been brought into the room.