Quinn on Books: Room Service | Hotel review by Sophie Calle | Review by Michael Quinn

Although Airbnb’s popularity has exploded in recent years, many people still enjoy staying in hotels. One reason is to have someone clean up after you. What if that person had another reason to be there?

For three weeks in 1981, Sophie Calle worked as a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel. While cleaning 12 rooms on the fourth floor, the French artist also “examined the personal effects of hotel guests and observed, through the details, lives that remained unknown to me”.

Calle documents his findings in The hotel. Recently published in English to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Siglio’s gorgeous hardcover edition has gold-edged pages and a cover striped by the rooms’ exaggerated floral wallpaper. Like much of Calle’s work, it is a combination of imagery and text that gravitates to the absurd and deadpan revelers in it. As with all of Calle’s work, she has created a game for herself and takes her rules very seriously.

Calle divides the book into parts. Each section is introduced by a color portrait of his bed. The surroundings are almost decorated. Oriental carpets under the feet. Embroidered blankets on the beds. Golden sconces on the walls. The furniture is wooden and probably old. Telephone cords snake around the spindly legs of bedside tables.

Calle makes brief factual observations (into a tape recorder she keeps hidden in her bucket). At first, each discovery looks like a treasure. “An elegant nightgown that I had not seen before is thrown over the two unmade beds like a bridge,” she wrote. The sight of crumpled pajamas on the bed “does something to me.” The cupboards contain wool suits and silk blouses. Orange peel mussel spirals in a trash can. Crushed cigarettes stink of an ashtray. In one room, Calle immediately opens the window to air out the musty smell.

Shoes seem to be an important clue. Sometimes, in his notes, Calle records their sizes. (A German guest has a “huge” pair.) Once, finding a pair of heels thrown in the trash and discovering that they fit her, Calle takes them for herself.

She rummages in cupboards and searches in drawers. If a suitcase is unlocked, it’s an open game. Calle samples an untouched stash of chocolates, tries on makeup, and sprays herself with perfume. She polishes a half-eaten croissant. She reads different versions of the same message on various postcards, flips through an address book and gets lost in a travel diary. Hearing a key in the door, she throws the book into the suitcase she found it in and rushes over, her eyes averted.

Calle seems to avoid contact with the guests – perhaps that’s one of the unspoken rules of his game – but they sometimes clash. “I’ll try to forget it,” she wrote of a man. A point is pressed in his hand. With single men in particular, Calle’s fantasies about their lives take flight. She imagines running away with a – maybe back home in Paris. Calle is much less interested in couples (although she listens to their conversations. A woman complains: “Modern art! Oh no, not modern art!”). Calle didn’t care about children. Seeing a picture of small pairs of shoes, we know it’s over for her. “I already miss these guests,” she admits.

Photos of things Calle finds — dentures, a vibrator, a small hammer, pornographic magazines — are shot in black and white. These are not beautifully composed photos. Calle works with deliberate aesthetic detachment. She uses her camera to record details in a factual manner, such as evidence from a crime scene.

From the belongings of the guests, she guesses things about them. Each morning is a new opportunity to test a hypothesis about their habits. She observes in which beds we have slept, which ones have not. It’s a relief to find part of the order she restored the day before still intact: “For once, the pillows remained as I laid them out. However, she is more interested in absence than in presence: lost hair, a single sock, a forgotten lipstick. Calle photographs empty coat hangers facing in different directions and an imprint in the mattress where a guest slept the night before.

Having little to do in a room gives Calle more time to snoop around, but rooms are often messy. Wet towels on the floor, water running, panties hanging over the shower rod. A couple picks up a mirror and puts it in the closet. Calle stubbornly puts it back in place and is relieved to find it still hanging on the next morning.

Maintaining order could be another rule of her game. It is certainly part of her job as a maid. She’s not complaining, but you can see how hard work it is. The contents of the suitcases appear to explode across a room. Venetian masks hang from the sconces. How do you make a bed when the pajamas get tangled in the sheets? How do you clean the tub when period-stained panties are left in there? (In one room, discovering a pair of dirty underwear in a sink, Calle covers it with a towel.) Still, she jumps when the mess has been packed up and taken away: “Gone is the clutter I was already used to. ”

As his job progressed, the monotony of his work began to weigh on him: “a strange feeling of deja vu came over me”. Sometimes the tours seem to overlap. While cleaning a room for a certain guest for the last time, she finds that “the luggage of the future occupants has already been brought into the room”. She thinks “of the man who stayed in this room yesterday with the same sense of privacy” – after all, from the moment we check in we think of a hotel room as our room. How would we feel if someone else was in it? Go through our things?

The hotel raises ethical concerns. Yet it still feels like a precious little time capsule. Today, we carry so many intimate details of our lives on our phones. What would there be to discover in a 21st A century-old hotel room? Sneakers and leggings?

Seen otherwise, The hotel is less about voyeurism and more about a lonely young woman in a foreign land doing a work game which is a kind of drudgery. “A strange atmosphere of silence hovers over the hotel,” she observes. Every day is spent alone, cleaning up after a stranger. Despite all their particularities as individuals, the guests become indistinguishable in the collective. Not people, but a category: the troublemakers. Faced with another overflowing suitcase, Calle confesses, “I’ve had enough.” The hotel well documents Calle’s interest in observation and knowledge: not the guests whose possessions he records, but the limits of his patience and the infinity of his imagination.

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