Summary

This is a two-part framed work comprising photographs and text. In the upper part, the title Room 44 is printed below a colour photograph of adjacent wooden twin bed-heads flush against ornately patterned gilt wallpaper. The twin beds are joined by a tautly pulled colourful Indian-print bedspread. Below the title, three columns of italic text are diary entries describing findings in the hotel room between Tuesday 17 February 1981 and Sunday 1 March. In the lower frame a grid of nine black and white photographs show things listed in the text above. This work is part of a project titled The Hotel, which the artist has defined:

On Monday, February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6, the job came to an end. (Quoted in Calle, pp.140-1.)

Each of the twelve rooms gave rise to a diptych of similar structure following the occupancy of one or more guests during the period of the artist’s employment at the hotel. Some rooms feature more than once as a second set of guests occupied them, giving rise to a total of twenty-one diptychs in the series. Calle’s descriptions of the hotel rooms and their contents combine factual documentation along with her personal response to the people whose lives she glimpsed by examining their belongings. Each text begins with the chambermaid/artist’s first entry into the room and a notation of which bed or beds have been slept in, with a description of the nightwear the guests have left. A list of objects usually follows, as the artist transcribes her activities in the room. Calle is unashamedly voyeuristic, reading diaries, letters, postcards and notes written or kept by the unknown guests, rummaging in suitcases, and looking into wardrobes and drawers. She sprays herself with their perfume and cologne, makes herself up using the contents of a vanity case, eats food left behind and salvages a pair of women’s shoes left in the bin.

The absent occupants of Room 44 are a woman who is subsequently joined by a man. After his appearance Calle is unable to enter the room for several days because the ‘Do not Disturb’ sign is left hanging on the door. When she does eventually go in, she finds that a mirror hanging on the wall opposite the bed has been taken down and put in the wardrobe. She replaces it. The peculiar combination of objects found in the room includes a stethoscope, a sphygmomanometer, an electric blanket, imitation leopardskin clothes, a bright red nylon wig, a Venetian mask, English crackers, bandages and syringes.

Calle began her artistic projects in 1979 on returning to Paris after seven years’ travel abroad. Disorientated, she felt like a stranger in her own city, not knowing how to occupy her time. She started to follow random passers-by and spend her days as they did. Eventually she picked up the camera she had been experimenting with during her time abroad and photographed the strangers, writing diaristic notes of their movements. From this she has developed a particular way of working, collecting information about people who are absent and investigating her subjects like a detective. The Hotel follows directly from a project the artist undertook the previous year entitled Suite Venetienne 1980, which evolved from a chance encounter with a man she had been following in Paris. He told her he was going to Venice, so she followed him there in disguise, documenting her observations. After a year of planning and waiting, she returned to Venice in 1981 as a chambermaid.

The Hotel diptychs were produced in an edition of four in English and four in French. Tate’s copy of Room 44 (17 February) is the first in the English edition. Room 44 has an earlier entry in the series for its occupant of the 16 February.

Further reading:
Sophie Calle: M’as Tu Vue, exhibition catalogue, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2003, reproduced pp.163-4 in colour
Sophie Calle, Double Game, London 1999, pp.140-83, reproduced pp.152-3 in colour
Hotel Hotel, exhibition catalogue, Landesgalerie am Oberösterreichischen Landesmuseum, Linz 2003, reproduced pp.48-9 in colour

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2005