Dirty Laundry

Sophie Calle lodges in your mind

Detail from “Room 30” in The Hotel by Sophie Calle, Siglio, 2021. Photo: Sophie Calle and Siglio Press.

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

THE ENGLISH EDITION, now out from Siglio, of Sophie Calle’s seminal photographic essay, The Hotel (1984), boasts a cover with a florid design and gilded lettering, which suggest preciousness and the idea of hospitality as genteel comfort. Yet the French artist ruthlessly unpacks such notions in the series—quite literally, since she made it while working as a chambermaid at a Venetian inn, raiding and photographing private articles left by guests in the rooms and by opening their luggage. The list of Calle’s playful transgressions is long: She tries on a guest’s Chanel No. 5, transcribes diaries and letters, and occasionally absconds with desserts. Although The Hotel doesn’t proceed in strict chronological order, instead circling around myriad oppositional dyads—boredom and play, labor and leisure, unromantic reality and sensual fantasy—the images are neatly grouped by room number and dated to signal occupant turnover. Calle pairs her cool, understated snapshots with occasionally striking compositions, and with her own acerbic observations, whose surreality she couches in a matter-of-fact tone. The Hotel is thus a work diary like no other, standing the idea of privacy on its head.

While she reduces leisure to prosaic sediment, Calle resolutely builds up her own persona, leveraging her anonymity and devaluation as a low-wage worker (“[I] lower my gaze, and leave”) into a high-wire act rife with optic tensions: On page one, she states she’s hid her camera in a bucket with mops, as if laying out the rules of spycraft; she’s always flash-appraising, rushed, barely dodging danger (“I hear some noise, hastily close the suitcase”). Her snap judgments (“Few clothes, but good quality”; “His handwriting is poor”) parodically mimic the guests’ touristic appraisals (“Glassware: not bad. Cemetery: fantastic. Gondola ride: worth it”). Her prodding of boundaries can seem quasi-Freudian: She eats the remainder of a male guest’s croissant (“I shall miss him”), and devours a couple’s chocolate bonbons, twice. Methodical yet driven by secret passions, she’s an unreliable narrator, parading fantasies as causal deductions. In this sense, The Hotel’s diarylike cover is a delicious put-on: One enters Calle’s autofiction at one’s own peril.

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

At times, The Hotel reads like an upstairs/downstairs comedy revolving around daily power tousles—something out of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Calle notices a guest moving back the table to where it was before she placed it (“I set it straight [again]”); “for once, the pillows have remained as I arranged them,” she notes victoriously, perhaps bitterly, in another entry. Wrestling for control, Calle is bluntly articulate on matters of time and money. She opposes the guests’ wastefulness to her own frugality (on finding a pair of thrown away pumps: “they fit me; I take them”); their dillydallying to her round-the-clock schedule, in which minutes, not hours or days are distinct units. She associates disorder with excitement, and neatness with banality, stark dichotomies clearly anchored in the monotony of her job: “Again this immediate feeling of boredom. I have to force myself to take an interest in them.”

A rigorous economy, contrasting profligacy with thrift, also informs Calle’s formal approach. Her nearly libidinal appetite for intimate detail clashes with a clinical dissection that leaves desire paralyzed. She can be vulnerable toward the hotel’s patrons (“the sight of . . . the brown leather slippers does something to me”), wistful (“Fleeting images of a missed encounter”), or dismissive (“He is dressed in the way I thought; he is about twenty-eight, with a weak face”; “I am already bored with these guests”). She suffers bouts of visual overstimulation (“I don’t want to take it all in today”), followed by depravation (“There is nothing else to see”; “Do not disturb”), like an addict dispensing tiniest dosages to avoid withdrawal. Such mad husbandry is mirrored in Calle’s images, which range from detached black-and-white snapshots, taken as if Calle were investigating a crime scene, to the occasional hypersaturated color spreads, whose close-ups of rococo wallpapers and coverlets induce sensory glut.  

In The Hotel, language takes precedence over image, the deliberate muteness of Calle’s photographs lending the text its confessional luster. To be sure, some photographs beckon with forensic allure: A torn crab’s pincer on pristine white sheets; a bloodstained sanitary pad stuck to dirty panties on the shower floor; a plastic dildo; a hammer and a black plastic bag, documented like murder weapons. Other images crackle with deadpan wit, e.g. the black-and-white snapshot of an Italian porn magazine whose cover brags, “Tutto A Colori.” Yet we need language to be pierced by subtler loneliness and sadness, as when Calle excerpts a letter from an elderly woman tucked between the pages a diary (the sender reproaches their “dear child” for their silence, and ponders moving into a rest home); or to make us recoil at the dirt on a comb, the grime invisible in a gray-washed image, yet crucial for Calle’s subcutaneous sensitivity to anonymous bodily traces.

Given her frisky predation, it’s unsurprising that the term “voyeuristic” is often applied to Calle’s work. Indeed, The Hotel is steadfastly “turned toward the object,” as Roland Barthes said of the nouveau roman, of which Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur (1955) was a lodestar. Playing on the dual meaning of objectif, which also means “lens,” Barthes framed the object in Robbe-Grillet’s novels as both a spectacle that, in a voyeur’s obsession, transcends functionality, and as a site of optical resistance, irreducible to a facile extraction of symbolic meaning. A similarly tensile, tremulous “caress” of the object, as Barthes called it, permeates Calle’s work, her own objectif turn manifest in her predilection for distilling human existence to its material remainder. About a couple who checked out on February 19, she ruminates: “The memory I will keep of them is the obscene image of the pajama bottom, lying stupidly on the chair.” And yet, by the book’s end, Calle’s laconic prose is achingly resonant. After all the attention lavished on the unsightly mess that makes us, a sense of unbearable transience suddenly trumps the weight of detritus—a déjà vu haunted by mortality. Calle writes about a departed couple: “They have left. The only traces of their stay: Nescafé and crackers in the wastebasket. The smell of smoke. The future occupants’ baggage has already been brought into the room.”