Artist Sophie Calle Took a Job as a Maid to Spy on the Guests

Wrapped in the opulent style of a classic Venetian interior, Sophie Calle’s The Hotel is closer in size to a work of literature than to your average photo book. Much like the artist’s last two publications with Siglio Press — The Address in 2012 and then Suite Vénitienne in 2015 — this intimate monograph revisits one of the artist’s earliest and most famous projects. Given Calle’s widespread recognition in and beyond the art world, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for The Hotel to be made into a standalone English edition. Perhaps this has something to do with the fraught ethics (and, as some of her subjects have claimed, legality) of Calle’s work: to create The Hotel, in 1981 Calle took a job as a maid in a Venice hotel, where she examined, photographed, and otherwise forensically documented the possessions and activities of the various guests whose rooms she had been tasked to clean. By looking through their suitcases, reading their diaries, and rummaging through their trash, Calle paints a subjective, voyeuristic portrait of who she imagines these people to be, and invites us to fantasize about them along with her.

For those who are ethically inclined, Calle has breached the ultimate contract: the trust that those who work in the service industry will act as expected and in the best interest of their patrons. In today’s climate of extreme economic inequality, however, The Hotel takes on a revealing new dimension; Calle’s transgression stems from the fact that, in cleaning up after the hotel’s guests, she has also made them unwittingly serve her interests. With each room, and each new group of visitors, an invisible transaction takes place. Calle not only keeps something of theirs in a metaphorical sense — the traces of individuals preserved in a photograph — but often in an embodied sense as well: “the remains of a croissant which I polish off,” a spritz “of their Chanel No. 5 perfume,” “a pair of hardly worn black flat heels.” The artist inverts the hierarchy of the service industry, but she is no Robin Hood.

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The crime-scene atmosphere of Calle’s black and white photographs only heightens this sense of intrusion. This absence of color, in addition to Calle’s frequent use of flash photography, paints her subjects in a (literally) harsher, almost alien light, one that amplifies the distance between her and them. Most of the images are loosely composed, as if taken on the fly, while the color photographs that punctuate each section are more symmetrical, more “artfully” presented. Had the bulk of the images in The Hotel been in color — which captures the chintzy, Baroque warmth of the rooms — they would lose much of their drama.

Sophie Calle, detail from “Room 30” in The Hotel, Siglio, 2021

Calle’s observations make for a surprisingly gripping read, even if the photographs themselves are not always compelling. Her prose is sparse, both in the original French and in the English translation, and it recalls Hemingway’s sense for tactical omission. The facts are presented methodically, even scientifically, as if she is conducting an ethnographic study: “In the calendar, the days 1.3, 1.4, 1.9, 1.17, 1.18, 1.23, 1.31, 2.1, 2.6, 2.8, 2.14, 2.15, 2.20, 2.28, 3.1, and 3.2 have been marked through with a straight blue line.” And yet, this very thoroughness calls her reliability as a narrator into question. What sort of person dissects the contents of another’s trash, and then turns it into a book with a gilded edge?

In the end, Calle’s analysis makes the reader perhaps more curious about the artist herself than the guests she spies on. We glean traces of her identity at moments when her perspective veers into the overtly subjective, colored by her feelings toward certain guests. (Calle’s romantic inclination toward the solitary man in Room 25 betrays a desire for connection, while she is instantly bored by the stable domesticity of the family in Room 47.) Toward the end of her project, the fantasy starts to dim: “Various images blend together. Days and clients all run together in my mind.” The people, too, seem to grow less interesting, although this may be a distortion of the lens through which they are shown. Ultimately, the reader is left to hunt for Calle just as she searches for others; the book is a testament to the innate unknowability of other human beings.

The Hotel by Sophie Calle is published by Siglio Press and is available online and from independent booksellers.


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