How Suite It Is: Sophie Calle Makes an Artwork Out of a Hotel Room

A fractured, mysterious narrative on the Upper East Side
dsc 0029 retouched How Suite It Is: Sophie Calle Makes an Artwork Out of a Hotel Room

Installation view of Sophie Calle's "Room" at the Lowell Hotel, New York. Photo: Damien Saatdjian. ©Sophie Calle / ADAGP. Photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, NewYork

The Lowell Hotel, situated rather inconspicuously on the stately block of East 63rd Street that stretches between Madison and Park, is filled with antiques and orchids. Its rooms, to which guests ascend in a tiny, black-walled elevator, have fireplaces and terraces. As its general manager, Ashish Verma, took care to remind The Observer, it is often referred to as “a jewel of Manhattan.”

Beginning at the end of the day on Thursday, at midnight, there will be an unusual guest staying in one of the Lowell’s best-appointed suites. With its plush furniture and carpeting, space is at once cozy and spacious; it runs about $1,850 a night. The guest is an artwork called Room, an installation by the French artist Sophie Calle.

Room will fill the hotel suite with dozens of objects, including a bathrobe and a coffee cup, dice and a Polaroid camera. “What I am bringing is more or less a suitcase,” Ms. Calle, who turned 58 on Sunday, told us last week, sounding like any other smart, efficient traveler to New York. She was speaking to us over the phone from Paris, where she lives. Like any other smart, efficient traveler, she is shipping her more cumbersome objects in advance. One of them is a wedding dress.

Her artworks have always dealt in what might be called fraught objects, ones that become even weightier when she gives them a backstory. At the Lowell, short texts will accompany the objects, telling what appear to be autobiographical stories. The texts speak of childhood traumas, failed relationships. “I have always liked others to make decisions for me,” one says. “B. and I played a game: on even-numbered days he made the decisions, on odd-numbered days I did. When he left for the States he gave me a die to replace him.”

This is not the first time Ms. Calle has used a hotel as her medium. In 1981, she worked for three weeks as a hotel maid in Venice, examining guests’ belongings and reading their letters as she tidied their rooms. She snapped photographs and wrote journal entries to describe what she saw. Another artwork was born when a canceled meeting with a lover at a New Delhi hotel became the centerpiece of a complex installation called Exquisite Pain.

“I always go back to the hotel, in a way,” Ms. Calle told us quickly, with a faint hint of a French accent.

“There is a cliché in the hotel industry of the home away from home,” Ashish Verma, the general manager of the Lowell, told The Observer. “But it actually applies to us. Many of our rooms have fireplaces and terraces, and we are often referred to as a jewel of Manhattan.” It is also filled with luxurious antique furniture and orchids. “We are very aware of the fact that we are an extension of our guests’ lifestyle,” Mr. Verma added.

This new piece isn’t explicitly related to her earlier hotel-related artworks, she says, but there are ways in which her artworks have always been interwoven with each other, like stories—often personal ones—that continue in different settings. One of the labels in Room describes a 2002 artwork in which she spent one night in a bed on the top of the Eiffel Tower, allowing visitors to tell her their own stories.

Reading the texts that will be included in Room, one notices recurring characters and narratives. Established details of Ms. Calle’s life appear, but there are also moments when the tales seem to venture into fiction. “Much of what Sophie has done deals so much with private and public, what’s real and intimate,” said Lili Chopra, artistic director of the French Institute Alliance Française, who organized the event. “Is it fiction or nonfiction, is it real or is not, is it her or is it not?”

Room is an expansion on a show Ms. Calle had at London’s Freud Museum in 1999, in which she also presented objects and stories. “This show is a way to play with an old idea and make it travel,” Ms. Calle said. After appearing at the Lowell, the works will move once again, this time to New Orleans, where they will go on display at the 1850 House of the Louisiana State Museum as part of the “Prospect 2” biennial.

The installations in New York and New Orleans will look markedly different from her exhibition at the Freud museum, Ms. Calle says. “I’ve made many new stories since that first show.”

Although Ms. Calle shows more frequently in Europe than she does in the U.S., she has deep roots in New York, and has lived here, first in the early 1970s, before she began making art, and then in the late ’70s and the early ’80s. She worked for a period as a barmaid and a model for life-drawing classes in the city. The first show to feature her work, in 1980, was group exhibition held at the Clocktower Gallery in Tribeca and Fashion Moda in the Bronx.

“It’s a city to which I owe a lot because everything I have done was initiated in New York more than anywhere else,” she told us. Her first solo show in New York didn’t come until 1991, when Luhring Augustine organized it in collaboration with the dealer Pat Hearn, who had seen Ms. Calle’s work in Los Angeles at the Fred Hoffman Gallery. It is a hallmark of Ms. Calle’s life—and therefore also of her work—that it intersects in strange and often serendipitous ways with those of others. That L.A. show, she said, had come about through the architect Frank Gehry.

Frank Gehry? “Yes, it’s true,” Ms. Calle replied. “I met him when I did a work in Los Angeles during the Olympic Games. It was one of those times where you have to go somewhere and find an idea, and the idea has to be light because there is little budget and time. I asked people where the angels were in Los Angeles, and on my list was Frank Gehry. He offered at the time to be my impresario. I thought it was a joke, but I said yes. A few days later I got a call from Fred Hoffman.”

Since then, Ms. Calle said, Mr. Gehry has sent her flowers to celebrate the opening of every one of her solo shows around the world, and she has saved every one of them. “I have boxes and boxes and boxes of flowers in my house that I have never put in the garbage,” she told The Observer. In a few months she will release, through art publishers Gemini G.E.L., a new work about those 30 years’ worth of dried flowers.

Ms. Calle’s history with Mr. Gehry typifies her artistic practice. She usually begins with a simple idea, then allows chance to enter the equation and dictate the final result. Her works are “a search for affect, for emotion,” as the art historian Rosalind Krauss once put it.

In The Shadow (1981), for instance, Ms. Calle turned the directions of artist Vito Acconci’s 1969 artwork Following—for which he wrote accounts of people he tracked through New York streets—on herself. She had her mother hire a private detective to trace her every step. As he did so, she kept her own journal of her activities and fantasized about her pursuer. “It is for ‘him’ I am getting my hair done,” she wrote at one point. “To please him.” The detective’s photographs along with her journal constituted the work.

Ms. Calle, who has seen photographs of the room at the Lowell but has never been there, planned to arrive at the Lowell to install her artwork just 24 hours before the exhibition opens. After that, “many things may happen,” said Ms. Chopra. “The show will take shape, and then it may change.”

When The Observer asked Ms. Calle if she would be staying with her artwork, which will be accessible to the public 24 hours a day through Sunday night, she laughed. “I was not planning on it,” she said, still laughing. “But maybe you have given me an idea. Now I wonder if I should use this situation to be in the room to do something. I am just thinking about it as we are talking, so I don’t know.”

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