Sophie Calle is not afraid of a little intimacy—and she wants you to come up to her hotel suite. Check in to Calle’s fearless art of exposure in her latest installation, Room.
Sophie Calle, whose work has always played with notions of intimacy, vulnerability, and intrusion, has kindly invited all of New York City up to her hotel room. If the offer sounds like a bit of a come-on, that’s because it is. It appeals to our sense of morbid curiosity and, given the transitory, private, and anonymous terrain of the average hotel room (where doorknobs are often adorned with “Do Not Disturb”), it’s quite an invitation.
From October 13th through the 16th Calle checked in to one of the luxury suites at Madison Avenue’s Lowell Hotel, unpacking some of her most prized and private possessions to display to whoever walks in to take a peek, day or night. The artist herself also took part in the installation by sleeping on premises, keeping the hotel room true to its intended function. As a note attached to the door of the room explains:
“If the sign reads ‘Do Not Disturb’ at the time of your visit, please respect it and ring the bell to indicate your presence. Your waiting time will not exceed ten minutes.”
This may seem like a strange and unnecessary intrusion to most. Then again, not everyone has made their bed at the top of the Eiffel Tower and invited all of Paris to come read them bedtime stories—but Calle has. She also once worked as a chambermaid in a hotel to satisfy a voyeuristic desire to look at, touch and inspect the possessions of others (The Hotel, 1981). With her Room, Calle is willing to undergo a similar scrutiny.
Walking into Sophie Calle’s room at the Lowell is somewhat reminiscent of the treasure boxes and tchotchkes of childhood: sentimental, intense, and occasionally traumatic to revisit. Inside, we see a collection of sundry items that are both beloved and worse for the wear: a lone high-heel beside the coffee table, a half-burned mattress, a stuffed cat.
All objects, at once banal or extraordinary, are accompanied by placards explaining the peculiarity and personal significance of the items. Calle’s writing style is, quite frankly, blasé; she recounts extraordinary happenings and grim life events in the same casual tone with which one might order a Cobb salad. And yet, these vignettes are ultimately what help to realize the objects as being intensely personal and alluring, imbuing them with a near mythical quality.
All phases of womanhood are represented and magnified by the sheer fact that they coexist in the same exposed space; a baby carriage, a love letter (written by Calle’s ex-husband and addressed to another woman), a black lace bra slung over the rail of the shower, a wedding dress, a cemetery plot certificate, a phallic dessert that mortified Calle as a teenage girl. These all take up their own emotional space in the corners and closets of the Room, creating the sense that you, as the viewer, are not just looking into a private moment in time, but are uncovering the secrets of a life. In conversation, however, Calle is adamant that her work is about making a context rather than writing a diary: “I don’t feel it’s my private life."
Whether intentional or not, Room makes the viewer-cum-participant feel like both a welcomed guest and an intruder by simultaneously setting up and debunking the fairytale of “private space.” The first sensation I experienced when entering the room was not the rampant curiosity I was expecting, but rather, the sudden realization that I had trespassed onto hallowed ground. In the context of Calle’s Room, the act of turning a doorknob or opening a cabinet suddenly becomes thrilling, a breaking from the role of the polite guest to engage with the forbidden.
“It’s not about what is allowed.” Calle affirms. I left Calle’s Room wondering what I could personally do to push the limits of intimacy more often. One idea: become a chambermaid.
Sophie Calle was in New York presenting her work as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s (FIAF) Fall 2011 Festival, Crossing the Line.
FIAF’s Crossing the Line wrapped up on October 16th, 2011.
Rebecca Kaye is a graduate student enrolled in the Creative Writing Program at Oxford University. She is currently concentrating on poetry and drama.